25 Years After Conga

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Unofficially, you could say that Gloria, 53, and Emilio Estefan, 57, own Miami. Officially, they changed the pop music landscape forever with a little song called “Conga,“ which hit Billboard’s pop, soul, dance, and Latin charts simultaneously 25 years ago, and remains the only record ever to do so. Without “Conga” there would probably have been no Latin explosion. No Marc. No J. Lo. And it’s safe to say there would be no Pitbull. All thanks to the unlikely success of “Conga” and the Miami Sound Machine, a band formed by Emilio in 1975. The song wasn’t straight-up pop and it wasn’t in Spanish, but there was nothing like it in America’s mainstream music universe. Cotton candy songs like Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know?” and Lionel Ritchie’s “Say You, Say Me” topped the charts in 1985. No wonder “Conga” was initially deemed unmarketable by the suits at Epic/CBS Records.

The “Conga” beat first broke out in Europe in 1984. “We were in a club in Holland, and we had just finished playing the set and the crowd didn’t want to leave,” recalls Gloria. She and Emilio are sitting in the conference room at Estefan Enterprises, overlooking the city they’ve called home for more than 40 years. She still recalls Emilio’s suggestion to “do that conga stuff”—a medley of old Cuban songs they used to close their Miami gigs. The unique sound, created by barrel-shaped drums of African origin, served as the soundtrack to the carnavales of their beloved native island. “So Emilio says to me, ‘We’re gonna do that conga stuff’—because at the end of every gig in Miami, he would play a potpourri of old Cuban congas. So we played [them] and the crowd went nuts. That night I said to Emilio, ‘We have to write a song that’s based on, and talks about, this rhythm.’ ”

Excited about the “Conga” concept, the band wrote the song on the plane ride from Utrecht, Netherlands, to London, and recorded a demo upon their arrival back in the States, only to be met with resistance. “American radio will never play that,” Gloria remembers record execs saying.

But the Estefans were persistent, playing the song to enthusiastic live audiences. “We were saying, ‘If we’re going to triumph, we have to do it with a sound that separates us from everyone,’ ” says Gloria, who faced pressure to change her name to sound less Latin early in her career. “We never doubted it. I still enjoy performing it.” The label eventually released the single, and the song’s success gave the Estefans the confidence to keep doing things their way.

“The great thing about ‘Conga’ was that it was done when there wasn’t really a Latin market. There wasn’t a single Latin radio station,” Emilio adds. “All the doors were closed. It’s like a building that everyone told us couldn’t be built. And now the new generation sees it, we can point to it.”

To read more pick up the December/January issue of Latina, on newsstands November 16, 2010

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