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To Gloria Estefan, wearing a mask is as simple as taking care of each other
Gloria Estefan didn’t intend on releasing a new album during the pandemic.
“Brazil305,” which takes its name in part from the Miami area code, was supposed to be released about three years ago. The singer-songwriter planned to re-record several of her older songs, incorporating the Brazilian rhythms and percussion she absorbed throughout her life. (“Rhythm is Gonna Get You,” the chart-topping 1987 song she performed with Miami Sound Machine, is among the songs that got a remake.)
But then her mother fell ill and later died in 2017. Months later, Estefan tried to get back in the studio to finish but she wasn’t ready. “I just couldn’t sing,” she said. “It was impossible.”
Then came 2020 and a further delay — amid the novel coronavirus and national reckoning over police violence and racial injustice following the killing of George Floyd, the moment didn’t feel right. “I wanted to give the album the joy it deserved,” Estefan said.
Next week, “Brazil305,” which also includes a handful of new songs, will finally debut. Estefan wants to bring optimism to all, during what many Americans see as a disheartening moment in the nation’s history. She credits husband Emilio — “[He’s] the most positive human being” — with this influence.
Much like their joyful songs, the songwriting couple wants to lift everyone up. During the pandemic, their Miami restaurant made free meals for health care professionals and other essential workers. Estefan also redid another hit — “Get On Your Feet” — as a public service announcement during the pandemic. In a humorous video, Estefan shows her fans that putting on your mask and taking care of others is the way forward.
At home in Vero Beach, Florida, Estefan spoke with the PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz about the musical connection between her birthplace, Cuba, and Brazil’s samba culture, how she feels about masks being politicized, and why she wants to fortify everyone through music.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have been very busy. You’ve got a new album coming out. You’ve been positively prolific this time.
Thank you very much. We spent a month [in Brazil] really exploring the roots of samba. I learned so much and [it] was incredibly interesting.
I did the “Put On Your Mask” parody because one of my best friends, since I was 14, is a very respected infectious disease doctor that has been making the rounds on all the shows. And she called me at the beginning of March, [and] actually said, “You know, Glo, I need your help. We really need people to be wearing masks. And I know you do funny things. Could you please try to come up with a little funny song or something?”
That afternoon, another friend sent me masks that she was making that were really cool with these different patterns. And I said, ‘This is the universe telling me that I’ve got to do this.’ So that day I wrote the song and then I whipped out a green screen that I had two years ago, bought and never used. We did the video.
In this moment, you have taken a massive hit of yours from 1989, reworked it as sort of a public service announcement, to try to get people to wear their masks. You took “Get On Your Feet” and it is now “Put On Your Mask.” It is a thing of beauty to watch the video.
I wanted to use “Get on Your Feet” because in people’s minds, it’s an empowerment song. So I knew when they heard the music, I was gonna make them happy. And I figure, like a “spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” My idea was to capture kids because there’s a lot of fear that is involved with this. I know my own grandson literally said to my son, “Daddy, I don’t want to die,” when this was starting, because they just hear and see everything. And at that time, he was still in school. So they were hearing all these things. And I wanted to do a funny spin on a very serious subject matter. If we all would wear masks, we’d be much more protected.
Since you put that song out, masks themselves have become political. There’s a huge debate over whether people should wear them. What has that been like for you to watch as that debate unfolds?
Curious, because I think to myself, “How do we get to that point where something that is so simple to help to protect other people,” because literally you’re protecting other people more than yourself? And if everybody wears it, you know, it’s like people ask me, “How does Emilio’s and my relationship work?” And I say, “Well, he takes care of me and I take care of him.” That means that we’re both taken care of. So something as simple as, let’s put on this mask to make the world safer and stop the spread of this thing has been politicized to no end.
Can I ask you, because I’ve noticed you and Emilio both been hesitant to really talk too much about politics: Do you feel more strongly about some of those things than you did before?
Well, I feel strongly about it, but I’m still not going to share the views only because I have friends on both sides of the aisle and it’s kind of sad that there’s only two sides of the aisle. I don’t think that my own personal political views, just because I’m a singer and somebody likes my music, that I should try to convince them otherwise. I think that everyone has to look at what’s happening. We all have eyes. We all have ears, we all have brains. And I love this country. And I believe very much in its freedoms. And it pains me. It really hurts me to see what we’re all going through here because it’s so unnecessary. I just don’t understand. It’s hard to understand why we’re in this situation. And we’ll get past it. We will.
In the meantime, it’s like a fire that renews nature and gets rid of things that need to go, but at the same time destroys. And I want to put some water on that through my music and continue to just try to focus on the things that unite us and make us the same, like love, love for each other, love for family, music, celebration, dancing. And since we can’t do a lot of that, we’ve kind of been taken out of our socialized lives. I haven’t been able to hug my family members for five months. It hurts. But we got to do whatever we got to do to make the world safer for our kids, for my grandson, you know.
But I stayed away from politics in my song because I was a victim of politics. We lost our country to Cuba, you know, my dad gave up his life for both countries, for Cuba and for the US. [During] Vietnam, he was in the Bay of Pigs. He was in the U.S. Army. So to me, music was an escape from those kinds of things. That’s why I’ve stayed away from, you know, politics in my music.
You really haven’t hugged your family in five months. You seem like a hugger to me.
I’ve hugged some trees. I’ve hugged my animals. I hugged my grandson for his birthday because I was able to convince my son, and his wife convinced him, to let me host something in my backyard. All [eight] of us wore masks. I got my grandson a gigantic water slide that he rode by himself because my son didn’t want anybody else on the slide if his son was gonna be on it and as a kind of joke — but not really — I ordered hazmat suits because I was not going to let my son tell me that I could not hug my grandson.
You wore a hazmat suit to hug your grandson?
I did. I did. And he hugged me, so I will never forget that hug. He wouldn’t let go. He was holding on to me, like squeezing me. That hug was the best thing the entire day. It was beautiful.
I want to ask you about the new album and the new single in particular, because it’s a different kind of album for you in many ways. You talked about Brazilian influences. Tell me a little bit about where the music came from. What is the story behind this album? And also why this particular song is the first single.
Brazilian music and I have a long history, all the way back to when I was a kid. My first musical influence was my mother’s record collection. She had an extensive and very eclectic collection because she sang her whole life and danced and was the star of every show in her school. I listened to the greats of Cuban music: Cachao, Celia Cruz, Olga Guillot, el Trío Los Panchos from Mexico. She had Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, who is still one of my personal favorites, and a huge Brazilian collection with [Antônio Carlos] Jobim and Stan Getz and all this. I grew up listening to this stuff.
In ’83, I did a whole album called “Rio” that was really highlighting a lot of Brazilian music that I wrote lyrics to in Spanish. And live, we would always do samba arrangements to “Live for Loving You” or sometimes we did “Get on Your Feet,” sometimes “Conga.” So when Sony came to me and said [what] if we took a lot of your hits, and we went to Brazil and really reimagined and re-recorded these things, and you resang them with the Brazilian rhythms — different ones, not just bossa and samba, but samba de roda, all these different things that are not that well known. I was beside myself with glee. And then I said, let’s do some new songs as well, because I’d love to offer the fans something new, and it was really exciting for me to be able to re-sing some of these things that I’ve done sometimes three decades ago.
But what happened was when I was going to record my vocals in 2017, because that’s what [the record] was supposed to come out, my mom suddenly took ill. And after 33 days in the hospital, which I blessedly got to spend with her there with my sister, she passed away. And I waited a few months and tried to go in to sing. But I couldn’t — I just couldn’t sing. It was impossible. So I asked Sony to be patient and they were. And over a year later was when I was finally able to get into the studio and bring the joy that was intended for this album. Then what happened? COVID. We said, “No, we can’t do this now.” Then [the police killing of] George Floyd and everything that happened there — and out of respect, I didn’t want to start focusing on a record. So then after the funeral had passed, I told Sony, “We need joy. We need to balance the incredible sadness everyone is feeling, the heavy atmosphere. We need to put some joy –that’s what music has done for me all my life.”
Having the album out after everything you’ve been through personally, that this country has been through, that the world is going through right now, what is it like to introduce that kind of music?
It’s incredibly important to me, and even beyond the joy or the exuberance and celebratory nature of this music, it has very deep roots in our history because the Yoruba tribe of Africa was taken as slaves to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, and Cuba, and because of the European influences in Cuba, we had first the French, then the English, then the Spaniards and the African rhythms combined and fused with the sounds of these influences.
And on the banks of that lake, in the video for “Cuando Hay Amor” is where the women, the original Baianas, would wash the clothes and improvise these songs. They created these sounds and the music, and they would serve the food and then sing the music. And to me, it’s just connectivity because at the base of all music is percussion. It was the first way that we communicated as human beings. That African root that we share between Brazil and Cuba, and a lot of countries in Central and South America, we all came from there. This is where we all come from. And I think that it’s at this moment to celebrate the things that unite us and that appeal to all of us: music, love, family. We all want the same things as human beings.