It's tempting to call Gloria Estefan the comeback kid, even though she's never really gone away.
Six years ago, the Cuban American superstar recovered with lightning speed from serious injuries sustained in a bus accident, enabling her to release her second solo album, "Into the Light," in early 1991. An elaborately choreographed tour followed soon after, even as Estefan, 38, was still undergoing therapy and learning to function with metal rods inserted in her back.
Since then, Estefan has put out a series of albums, including greatest-hits, Christmas and two Spanish-language collections. But before "Destiny" was released June 4, it had been five years--a lifetime in the pop music world--since Estefan had a new English-language album of original material.
The reason it took so long was another momentous event in the singer's life, but this time a fortunate one: the 1994 birth of Estefan's second child, a daughter named Emily.
Taking a break after taping a promotional interview for an upcoming HBO concert (to be broadcast Sept. 21) and before having lunch with Emily, Estefan slips into an empty room in Manhattan's Sony Music Studios, slides onto a couch and begins casually discussing the road to "Destiny," which has sold an estimated 181,000 copies so far.
"With an album of new material, you have to tour, and obviously, I didn't wanna tour [pregnant]," says Estefan, explaining her absence from the road.
Estefan's experiences as a mom--she and her husband-manager-producer Emilio also have a 16-year-old son, Nayib--were a major source of inspiration in writing the songs for "Destiny," as was her personal growth in general over the past several years.
"The themes I explored were different, more mature, than on ['Into the Light']," she says. "The new album celebrates love in its many forms--maternal, physical, spiritual. I think it represents five years of living and evolving as a woman, and as a mother."
In fact, young Emily herself makes her debut recording appearance on "Destiny." Estefan had written a song in her daughter's honor, "Along Came You (A Song for Emily)," and the singer wanted to have her child in her arms while recording. Candles had been lighted around the studio, and the baby, mistaking the proceedings for a birthday party, started repeating, "Happy, happy. . . ." Consequently, the youngest Estefan landed her first rapping credit.
Both kids are accompanying Estefan on her current tour, which includes Aug. 8-9 dates at the Forum and an Aug. 13 show at the Pond of Anaheim. "It's tough having to raise them in this fishbowl," she says. "But I take them everywhere. I have to. What I do isn't a job, it's my life, and they have to be a part of it. They'll be gone soon enough. Too soon."
Returning to English-language pop forms, though, does not mean that Estefan has moved away from the cultural roots she honored on the two Spanish-language albums, with "Mi Tierra" featuring appearances by top Cuban music figures. In addition to lush ballads, "Destiny" includes densely percussive tracks featuring a wide variety of indigenous rhythms--among them Afro Cuban, Colombian and Jamaican--played exclusively on hand instruments.
That sound is also prominent on the album's final track, "Reach"--co-written with noted American pop meister Diane Warren--which was chosen as the theme song for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Elements of global multiculturalism have been at the core of the music since Estefan and her husband met in the mid-'70s, when he was keyboardist for a wedding band called the Miami Latin Boys. After Estefan joined as lead vocalist, the group changed its name to Miami Sound Machine and in 1979 began releasing Spanish-language albums on CBS Records' Hispanic label. By 1984, the band was recording for Epic Records--then also a division of CBS, now part of Sony Music. The following year, it released "Primitive Love," the first of two immensely popular English-language LPs that paved the way for the singer's successful solo career.
More than 10 years after Miami Sound Machine's breakthrough, the international pop music market is arguably more receptive than ever to the Latin and world music accents so prominent on "Destiny."
Still, Estefan's husband and professional partner insists that they both continue to be guided purely by artistic instinct.
"Back when we did 'Conga' [Miami Sound Machine's first Top 10 hit, from 1986], people thought we were crazy," Emilio says in a separate phone interview. "They said, 'My God, radio will never play this.' But it was our sound, as immigrants who had kept our roots from Cuba but had grown up listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. I think for us, the first priority is always honesty. You can never think in commercial terms. You have to let the people decide."
Estefan was born in Havana, Cuba, but was an infant when her family moved to the United States. As a policeman guarding the presidential palace in the final days of the Batista regime, her father had received early warning of Fidel Castro's impending coup in the late '50s.
Estefan has been a leading role model for the Latin American community--President Bush named her a "public delegate" to the United Nations in 1992. Not surprisingly, she has strong feelings about the increasing controversy surrounding our nation's immigration policies over the past year or so.
"This country was built by immigrants," she says firmly. "And unless you're a Native American, you're an immigrant, whether it's second or third or sixth or seventh generation. People came here from England way back when because they didn't want to follow the royal rule or pay taxes. What's the difference between them and today's political and economic exiles, people who need to feed their kids?
"Obviously we shouldn't have an open-door policy, but when some of these politicians use fear to try to appeal to some segment of the population . . . I know the people of this country aren't like that."
Estefan also took a leading role in another issue in Florida. Last year, she and her husband were riding their boat when a teenage jet-skier lost control of his vehicle, smashed into them and was run over by the craft's propellers. After learning that he had been killed, the Estefans went to Tallahassee, the state capitol, and lobbied for more restrictive safety measures affecting young people who ride power vehicles on the open waters.
"I wrote the jet-skier's mother a note," she says, "saying that the waters in Florida are now safer because of her son."
Estefan is now lending her irrepressible spirit to pursuits like promoting her current album on a worldwide tour but adds that she's not out to prove anything with the new shows--only to have as much fun as possible.
"My last tour was right after the [bus] accident, and I wanted people to know that I was OK," Estefan says. "So I purposely used very tight choreography, made it a challenge for myself. This time, the choreography will be more natural--stuff the audience could even do, if they want to be a part of it.
"A high-energy show, but loose and relaxed," she sums up, laughing. "Laid-back, but fast-paced!"
Much like the lady herself, it seems.
* Gloria Estefan will perform Aug. 8 and 9 at the Forum, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood, (213) 419-3100, 8 p.m., tickets $35 and $25, and Aug. 13 at the Pond of Anaheim, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 704-2400, 8 p.m., sold out.