By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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A tony crowd of telenovela stars, musicians, and dozens of representatives of Miami's Latin media have gathered at Little Havana's Centro Vasco for the CD release party celebrating Cachao's Master Sessions. By the time the descarga starts on stage, the restaurant's cocktail lounge is so packed that two competing photographers are physically threatening each other. At times the TV cameras outnumber the musicians, who include Estefan on timbales and Garcia playing congas.
"Emilio! Emilio! Emilio!" shout reporters, vying to get the producer on camera. Estefan moves through the crowd, slapping acquaintances on the back and enveloping friends in a bear hug. He spends about an hour being shuffled from one camera-reporter team to another, affably responding to their repetitive questions.
Such commotion is almost routine now at Centro Vasco. In recent months Albita's shows, which attracted only a few tables of faithful fans less than a year ago, have become fancy reservations-required affairs with Friday- and Saturday-night audiences of 250 lining up behind velvet ropes to get in. At the end of May, one of the restaurant's walls was knocked down to make more room for the singer's fans. "Cheito" Quinones also has begun performing at Centro Vasco, going on after Albita.
Totty Saizarbitoria, who owns the restaurant-club Centro Vasco with her husband, Juan, says that Albita's following grew gradually. But the crowds were never this big until Estefan signed the singer in March.
"Emilio is one of us who's made it," Saizarbitoria points out, explaining the secret of Estefan's influence on Miami's Latin community. "You always look up to someone who's made it."
Estefan, too, used to play at Centro Vasco. Back in the early Seventies, the Miami Latin Boys were booked there often for weddings and quinces. Estefan already was moving up in the music world. His first gig a short time earlier had been at an Italian restaurant on Biscayne Boulevard, where he played a used accordion for tips. Then he got the band together -- guitar, bass, keyboards, horns, drums A and they started playing private parties. Back then Estefan still had his day job at Bacardi, where, he reports, in twelve years he worked his way up from mail boy to a $100,000-a-year position as director of Hispanic marketing.
In 1975 the band expanded when Gloria Fajardo and her cousin Merci began singing with the group, whose name soon was changed to Miami Sound Machine.
"Miami Sound Machine was the sound of Cuban kids coming to America," Estefan says. Maybe for Emilio, who in 1966, at age thirteen, left the island for Miami with his parents, Lebanese immigrants who owned an underwear factory in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Not long afterward Estefan accompanied his father to Spain for a couple of years, where he attended school; he returned to Miami on a student visa. He has been back to Cuba only once, to pick up his brother during the Mariel boatlift.
For Gloria, her cousin, and other younger band members weaned on American rock, pop, and disco, the band's music was the sound of the kids of Cuban immigrants growing up in the U.S. Influenced by what was then considered the Miami sound -- KC and the Sunshine Band, the Bee Gees -- the group soon turned from playing Cuban standards to playing pop music. Miami Sound Machine mixed Cuban ballads with the reigning disco-pop style on their first album, the Spanish-language Renacer, recorded for approximately $2000 on the now-defunct Hialeah-based Electric Cat label. Although the title song was a Spanish radio hit, the band members, still record-industry novices, saw no return on their investment.
"We never got paid," Estefan recalls. "No publishing, no nothing."
Less than a year after Gloria joined the band, she and Emilio began dating. In 1978 they were married. After their son Najib was born in 1980, Estefan decided it was now or never regarding a music career. He quit his job at Bacardi to devote all of his time to the band. "They told me I could come back if the music didn't work out," Estefan says with a laugh. "Now Bacardi is an $18 million sponsor of Gloria's concert tour."
Miami Sound Machine was signed by Miami-based Discos CBS International, CBS's Latin division, which ultimately evolved into Sony Discos. The group made four Spanish-language pop albums between 1981 and 1983, enjoying a string of number-one hits in Latin America.
But the Latin-tinged American pop that would make Miami Sound Machine a sensation in the United States and Europe was first heard on their 1984 album Eyes of Innocence, which included the disco hit "Dr. Beat." Two more albums, Primitive Love (1986) and Let It Loose (1987), picked up by Epic for American distribution, redefined the Miami sound.
"I created the Miami Sound Machine, and I developed that sound, and that belongs to me and Gloria," Estefan says proudly.
But Joe Galdo, a producer and drummer who used to work with Estefan, doesn't see it that way. Galdo, now a producer for Island Records, was part of a production team known as the "Three Jerks," who Estefan hired to work on Primitive Love and Let it Loose. Galdo maintains that the Miami sound was a product of the trio's work in the studio, where they wrote, arranged, and performed the music, and that Estefan had little to do with it.