The city of Miami Beach is turning 100, and its biggest stars are coming out in droves to help the Art Deco mecca celebrate in grand fashion. The city is offering various festive events leading up to Thursday’s grand finale, the Hard Rock Rising Miami Beach global music festival, which runs from 3 p.m. to midnight on the sands of South Beach at Eighth Street and Ocean Drive.
And boy, what a concert.
Slated to take the stage in honor of the city are Gloria Estefan, Barry Gibb, Andrea Bocelli, Flo Rida, Jon Secada, Diego Torres, Wyclef Jean, DJ Irie, Afrobeta, Al B. Sure, Dave Mason, Nicole Henry, Ky-Mani Marley, Kevens, Third World and dozens more, accompanied by the Miami Symphony Orchestra and guided by musical director Rudy Perez.
Seven-time Grammy winner Estefan — the reigning queen of Miami whose stellar career took off with the Latin crossover band Miami Sound Machine in the mid-’80s with the enduring hits Dr. Beat, Words Get in the Way, Anything For You, Rhythm Is Gonna Get You and, of course, Conga — talked to the Miami Herald about her love for Miami Beach; her family’s arduous journey from Cuba to America in 1960 when she was only 2, and her earliest memories of Miami; how she gave up a career in psychology for her true passion, music; and her excitement over her daughter Emily’s musical talent.
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Q: You’re one of Miami’s most beloved performers. When did you hear about this event, and how long did it take for you to say yes?
A: Well, I actually heard about it when we were attending an event for the Clinton Foundation in December, and the mayor [Philip Levine] was there, and he told me right there. And I told him that of course I would do it — it’s a no-brainer for me. I’m a Miami Beach resident, I love this place very much, and I’ve been coming to the beach since I was a little girl even before I lived here. So to be a part of this great event was easy to say yes to.
Q: What’s your earliest memory of Miami?
A: We used to live right next to the Orange Bowl; in fact, recently I visited that place and drove by it, and it looks exactly the same. Nothing has changed to this little apartment complex that my mom actually found. It was brand new, with two little strips of apartments facing each other, and it was almost all women there with their kids — our fathers were in Bay of Pigs, and then political prisoners — so it was probably as close to living in a commune of women as it could be. We had one car that they bought for 50 bucks, and we would all get together to go shopping and wash the clothes and kind of protect each other, all the ladies. So I have a very big memory of that.
Q: Were you too young to remember the sense of hope that the new life in America gave your family?
A: Oh, I remember — of course I remember. We sacrificed a lot for it. My mother had a very good life in Cuba, and my father as well. He was a police officer for the first lady, so it was really tough when that whole thing went down, and even though he had done nothing wrong, he was immediately jailed along with his father, who was a commander in the army. He had served under many presidents, and they were kind of blacklisted because of their ties to the Batista government in that they worked for the first lady and whatnot. And they had a lot of truth and back story on who Fidel Castro was, so he knew that it was gonna be very tough and he wanted to get us out, thinking that we’d be back when they did the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was probably way too premature, because there were a lot of supporters of Fidel still there at the time.
And then once he came back and realized that we were gonna be here, he joined the U.S. Army because the Army said that any of the Cuban Bay of Pigs men that had any sense of English could enter the U.S. Army as an officer. So after two years in jail in Cuba, he went to Georgia and studied six months there, and then we moved to Texas, where I went to school and learned English in first grade. And I still talk to my teacher, Mrs. Collins — she ended up being principal, and is a very respected lady in San Antonio. She was African-American, and I was at that time the only Hispanic in the class.
But always in the back of my dad’s mind and my mom’s, was that eventually we’d go back, that things would right themselves. I still have our round-trip tickets from Pan Am.
Q: You began recording with Miami Sound Machine while you were still a student at the University of Miami. Did you have enough success to tempt you to commit full-time to the band, or were your studies still top priority?
A: Well, always in my family, education was key. My mom had a Ph.D in education in Cuba, and my father was also a college grad, so even though I sang since I talked and my mom loved how I sang, there was no thought of me having that as a career. We needed to have a career that was solid, and I could pay the bills. And I really loved psychology — I wanted to be a psychologist. I had a double major: Psych and Communications with a French minor, because I loved French. Then by the time I graduated, I was accepted into the Clinical Psych school at UM, which at that time had only 12 chairs. And I didn’t want to take up that chair, because at that point I knew that I really didn’t want to go on to clinical psychology. My plan was to study in Sorbonne — I had been accepted in Paris to study there, and I was going to study international law and diplomacy.
During that time was when I met [Miami Sound Machine bandleader] Emilio [Estefan], and we fell in love, and that change is really what put us into this career, because we thought, OK, we both have careers — Emilio worked at Bacardi Imports and was doing very well there — we had great insurance. Our son had a lot of issues with allergies and asthma and things, so it was a big deal for us to opt out of the regular 9-to-5 job that gave us security. But we both figured that we love what we’re doing and it’s going in a great direction, and if we can do it, we always have something to fall back on. Music was his first love — he had a band in Cuba when he was 8 years old — and I loved it, too. It’s just that we had never considered it. So we took a risk, but it was a very calculated risk.
Q: What can we expect from your set?
A: Well, there’s a lot of performers that day, so we can’t hog the time. But my set is gonna be completely high-energy — that I can tell you. You’re gonna get all hits, all uptempo. We’re also gonna do a bit of a tribute to a wonderful Miami artist who cannot be there that night — KC [Harry Wayne Casey of KC and The Sunshine Band]. And I’m gonna have my daughter Emily join me for that tribute — we’re gonna duet. And actually she’s gonna go out there and do something of her own really quick — she’s probably the best musician of all of us.
Q: You could easily rest on your laurels, but you’re constantly doing new things. Where did that drive come from?
A: It’s not so much a drive as it is kind of reveling in the fact that we have the opportunity to do something that we love, and as long as we continue to have ideas that make it exciting for us, then why not try to share them?
I’m a musician, so I continue to do things that get me excited about getting into the studio. We did a great album with Pharrell a few years ago, and then The Standards, which was nominated for a Grammy. I love that stuff. I grew up with standards — I sang them for my mom, and my dad, and it’s one of the genres that I most love in music, hands-down. And I recorded that album live, with [jazz pianist] Shelly Berg, the dean of the University of Miami School of Music, and these amazing guys who played with Ella Fitzgerald, for god’s sake. These guys are the bomb. I would love to do another one of those records, but really uptempo, really hot arrangements of standards.
Q: If someone had told you as a young girl that you would go on to win seven Grammys and sell 100 million records, what would you have said?
A: [Laughs] Are you crazy?!?! You know, I always thought as a kid that I was gonna do something very different. I always had that feeling, and I’ve been a bit psychic in my life, and I’ve seen things coming — I just never knew how it was gonna happen, and much less at that time, because I really do not like being the center of attention. It’s not my nature. So even though I love music, my thought to jump to something of what it would take to win seven Grammys and to be able to be on a world stage, I just wouldn’t have been able to make that connection. Fortunately for me, our overnight success was 10 years [laughs], so it gave me a lot of time, and playing in the band from everywhere from one person in the audience to eventually 150,000, which sometimes is easier, by the way, than singing to that one person. It was a very gradual process. I like to do things well, and I like to learn, and basically what I learned was just to relax and let people see how music made me feel. And just get out of my head and let the music speak for me. It was a long process for me — I don’t think I could have just jumped into that overnight.
And I was afforded that, with the experience with the band, and the fact that my husband was with me every step of the way, and he’s a super-motivational guy, a guy that always says, “Yes, you can” to everyone around him. So there was a lot of factors that really helped in shaping me.
And now with my daughter that I know is very similar to me, I’ve tried to be that for her, and guide her in that respect. Because she is very similar to me, so I know exactly what she’s going through. But she’s such an amazing musician — she’s a kick-ass drummer, she plays piano, guitar, she’s writing, she sings beautifully — well, you’re gonna see. She’s really a very special soul, and I’m very happy that I’ve been here for her, because I don’t think she ever even considered doing what I do, because she was stepping into those shoes that had to be daunting, you know? But she can’t help it — she’s a musician, solid, through and through, more than all of us.
If you go
What: Miami Beach Centennial Concert
When: 3 p.m.-midnight Thursday
Where: On the sands at Eighth Street and Ocean Drive, Miami Beach
Info: www.miamibeach100.com; free-$1,000