Classics of Latin Music: “Conga” by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine

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GCPop music in the 21st century is brimming with superstars with Latin American roots: Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, Enrique Iglesias, Shakira – the list goes on and on. Some of these artists first made their name in Latin America, others in the United States. Either way, thanks to globalization and ever-improving communications technology, they have achieved worldwide popularity and success. Latin music in its infinite variations is having a moment, and by moment I mean three decades and counting. What’s cool is that, unlike comparable cultural tides, it’s actually quite easy to identify the birth of this Latin wave we are witnessing today. It happened in 1985 with a single act, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, a single album called Primitive Love and, especially, a single song called “Conga.”

It’s somewhat poetic that “Conga” became the first Latin hit in recent times to truly cross over into the American mainstream and then achieve a global audience. Latin music had had its moment before, roughly between the 1930s and the 1950s, and Cuban conga music played a big part in it, along with the Argentine tango and Americanized ballroom versions of the Cuban rumba and mambo. The conga was born in the Cuban countryside, as the traditional music of the slaves forcibly brought from the Congo region of Africa began to seep into the culture of the Caribbean island. Some music scholars believe that the word “conga” refers to a female member of the Kongo tribe, but others have suggested that it refers to the word “maconga,” which means “song”.

For a long time, the Cuban elites saw this kind of music as inferior, too poor, too black, and it was actually banned for long stretches during the early 20th century. But Cuban artists living in the United States began playing it in big-band ensembles until it caught on. In the 1940s, Desi Arnaz, who was a well-known Cuban musician before marrying Lucille Ball and becoming Ricky Ricardo on television, popularized the “conga line” in which a crowd of people danced to a conga rhythm – one-two-three-FOUR – holding on to each other in a forward-facing line. For two generations it was obligatory at weddings and dance parties in the United States and across Latin America.

By the 1960s, Latin dance music had receded from the American mainstream. Sure, some songs broke through, including Richie Valens’ “La Bamba,” José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” and the Latin-tinged rock of Carlos Santana, and Mexican and tejano music enjoyed a big audience in Texas and the Southwest states. But the Baby Boomers’ embrace of rock n’ roll and their rejection of the “square” preferences of their parents meant that radio stations stopped playing Latin music, record companies stopped putting out Latin albums, and Latin musicians were pushed out of the limelight along with the rest of “world music.” Ironically, at about this time, Colombian salsa and Dominican merengue were being refashioned in the streets of New York City and would become the dominant rhythms of Latin dance music, played and danced to around the Spanish-speaking world and all but ignored up North.

And so, success for a Cuban-American band singing in English was by no means a sure thing in the early 1980s. The Miami Sound Machine (originally Miami Latin Boys) had been recording for almost a decade by then. The band was born when its creator, Emilio Estefan, married Gloria María Milagrosa Fajardo and convinced her to headline the band. Gloria was born in Havana, but her family had fled to Miami soon after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Her father had been a bodyguard of Fulgencio Batista, the American-backed dictator brought down by Fidel Castro’s communist guerrilla insurgency. Needless to say, the family did not see eye to eye with the new regime and emigrated as soon as they could. This lends a political significance to her career that most fans have missed. Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine were beloved by the Cuban American community for their vocal opposition to the Castro regime, but despised by left-wing Latin Americans across the region.

At first the act was a family affair, fronted by Gloria Estefan, who also wrote many of the songs, and featuring her cousin Merci Murciano and her husband Raúl. Between 1977 and 1984, they recorded seven albums, mostly in Spanish. As the band developed its eclectic sound, it added numerous musicians with roots in Latin music, as well as rhythm and blues. Most of the music they played and recorded during those early years is unknown to the mainstream public. In 1984, having already released a LP called A Toda Máquina, the band made a grab at the mainstream with Eyes of Innocence, their first English-language album. Although a couple of its singles, including “Dr. Beat” and “Prisoner of Love” would later become well known, Eyes of Innocence came and went without making much of noise.

What was it about “Conga” that finally got the band noticed? Luck of course, the support of the right people, perhaps the rising visibility of the city of Miami through films like “Scarface” and TV shows, especially the hugely popular Miami Vice. But credit must go also to the song itself, a joyous dance anthem with earworm level lyrics anchored by an irresistible beat. Written by Enrique García, the song was the centerpiece of Miami Sound Machine’s second English-language release, Primitive Love. It was the chorus. It must have been. “Come on/ Shake your body, baby/ Do that conga”, calls out Estefan in her youthful, unpretentious delivery, as the band breaks out in a flood of sound that mimics the carnival marches where the conga was born. Indeed, the song pays a little tribute to its Cuban origins – “It’s the rhythm of the island/ and like sugar cane so sweet” – but its relationship to Cuban conga, already Americanized once by Desi Arnaz’s conga line, is tenuous. Much like earlier artists such as Harry Belafonte or Carlos Santana, Miami Sound Machine took from the original music only what they thought American audiences would love, and simply dropped the rest.

It sure worked. “Conga” reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 list in 1985, and was soon played around the world. Buoyed by the success, the band enjoyed a series of hits, such as “Bad Boy” and “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.” Sure, by today’s standards they sound a little tame (compare “Conga” to something like Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie”). But if they don’t get that much play in dance clubs any more, they continue to be staples of oldies radio stations, getting enough airtime for a second generation of fans to get caught in their catchy beats.

Gloria Estefan’s career exploded, reaching its peak with the 1989 release of “Cuts Both Ways,” which included the hits “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Oye Mi Canto.” Early in 1990, Estefan was severely injured in a horrific traffic accident. Though she eventually made a full recovery, and continued a long and eventful career as a musician, actress, and activist, she was never quite able to reach those heights again.

Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine sold millions of records and won awards and a devoted worldwide fan base. But nothing could ever approached the detonating impact of “Conga,” which not only opened the doors of stardom to this one band and its kickass lead singer, but to all the crossover Latin hits that followed. Many of them have followed the original’s footsteps and watered down their music for easy consumption. But the space that this first success helped create is now wide enough for all sorts of acts, traditional and innovative, purist or syncretic. Here’s to hoping that the Latin moment we are all enjoying lasts forever.

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