Like all Cubans, Gloria Estefan will always remember the date: Dec. 31, 1958--the day Cuba changed.
Her father--Jose Manuel Fajardo--was a guard for the wife of Cuban President Gen. Fulgencio Batista and he began making plans on that day--the day of the communist revolution--to send the family to Miami. While the family escaped, he was imprisoned by the Castro regime.
Gloria, who was 2 years old at the time, grew up in the United States, but the music of Cuba remained a part of her life. Her grandmother taught her old songs from the native land.
In 1975, she began her musical career when she met (and later married) Emilio Estefan, another Cuban exile who was leading a new band, then called the Miami Latin Voice. After enormous success with the group, which became the Miami Sound Machine, she embarked on her solo career in 1987.
Her new album, "Mi Tierra," is her first worldwide all-Spanish album--a tribute to the '30s and '40s music of Cuba. On the eve of the album's release, Estefan talked about the album and her love of Cuban music.
Question: Was there a lot of music in your family?
Answer: Yes, definitely. My mother sang and danced, and got a contract in Hollywood to dub Shirley Temple movies into Spanish. My father's mother was a poet and both of my uncles write songs and sing. One of my uncles, a classical violinist and salsa flute player, had a famous band in Cuba, Jose Fajardo and his Stars. So music was everywhere.
Q: How did you get together with Emilio?
A: Some friends invited Emilio and his band to play at a party that I was attending, and he asked me if I'd ever like to sing with them . . . as a hobby. I immediately said yes. We never dreamed we'd have the success we had. All we wanted to do was have some fun, but everything eventually fell into place.
Q: The new album must have been a longtime dream. When did you start thinking about it?
A: Almost five years ago. I was anxious to record an all-Spanish album that reflected my Hispanic and Cuban roots. "Mi Tierra" ("My Land") includes unknown songs and even new songs that are made to reflect the spirit of that era. We were even very careful when choosing the instruments we wanted to play with, because it had to be as close as possible to that old style. It's a work of love.
Q: How do you think your English audience will receive it?
A: I think they'll like it because they love it in my live shows when I sing to them in Spanish. They always ask me for more.
Q: Why wasn't (Cuban salsa great) Celia Cruz part of the superstar lineup on the album?
A: Oh, I love Celia . . . Emilio produced an album for her and I sing on it. But she was busy on tour while we were recording.
Q: Is this the first time you worked with (Nicaraguan salsa star) Luis Enrique?
A: Yes. He's a great percussionist. The most incredible thing about him is that he's not Cuban, but plays all types of Cuban styles in a very legitimate way. He did a tremendous job, really.
Q: Six of the tracks were co-written by you. How would you rate yourself as a songwriter?
A: Me? I can't rate myself as a songwriter! (Laughs) I know I touch some people and get wonderful responses from them, but I don't know. I mean, what would you rate it against? That's impossible.
Q: "Mi Tierra" is your tribute to the Cuban music of the first half of the century. But the Cuban music since the revolution has had a great influence on the rest of Latin American popular music, especially the music of people like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes and the rest of the Nueva Trova movement. Do you value this music--despite your political differences?
A: I value whatever an artist does. That's the freedom of any human being. Personally, I haven't heard Silvio Rodriguez nor Pablo Milanes, simply because I don't generally buy music. I listen to many different styles, but I don't go record-shopping. But I know there's a lot of people everywhere who like Cuba's Nueva Trova movement, and they have all the right to do that.
The only thing that saddens me about those musicians--and they also have the right to express themselves--is that sometimes they don't have the freedom to say everything they want. I don't know if (the messages in their music) is their real ideology or something they had to adopt in order to survive in a country where the government practices are totally terrorist.
Q: Isn't it possible that that is their ideology? They also had enough chances of deserting, but decided to remain in Cuba instead.
A: Maybe. There may be many reasons, and that's a possible one, of course. Look, I respect anybody's ideology, but don't forget (trumpet player) Arturo Sandoval and so many other artists who apparently were part of the regime are now leaving Cuba. That makes me doubt if they really sympathize with the revolution. Only God knows. I can't judge them because I don't know.
Q: When (Dominican tropical star) Juan Luis Guerra received his Billboard/Lo Nuestro award for song of the year recently in Miami, many of your fellow Cubans booed because they consider him to be too left-wing. What did you think of that?
A: That was inappropriate because one owes respect to any human being, no matter what his ideas are. But that's also part of democracy. Sometimes I see things I don't like, like Ku Klux Klan members or skinheads, but I have no right to destroy their rights to expose their ideas.
Q: You already have your star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you sing in Whoopi Goldberg's latest movie, you're rich, famous, and now this record. What's next?
A: I have to rest and enjoy a lot, but that also includes making more music. All I really want is to be able to see my son grow up to be an honest, healthy and good man. I want to be with him and enjoy music throughout the years. I'm happy to work in something that I love so much. For me, there's nothing better than that.