A night of rhythm, song, and achievement

UM alumna Gloria Estefan and her daughter, Emily, perform during a celebration event in Washington, D.C. where Gloria and Emilio Estefan were awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Photos: By Shawn Miller, courtesy of the Library of Congress

By Julia D. Berg

UM alumna Gloria Estefan and her daughter, Emily, perform during a celebration event in Washington, D.C. where Gloria and Emilio Estefan were awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Photos: By Shawn Miller, courtesy of the Library of Congress

A night of rhythm, song, and achievement

By Julia D. Berg
Gloria and Emilio Estefan received a special award from the Library of Congress in a Washington, D.C. event taped for a PBS television show that will air in May.

As a large television production crew in Washington, D.C. did some last-minute microphone testing prior to a celebrity-filled celebration for The Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the honorees—Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan—were waiting in the wings, eager to get the show started.

The Cuban-American hit songwriting team have composed 38 No. 1 hits across the Billboard charts and produced many others. In their 43 years together, they’ve racked up dozens of Grammys and Latin Grammys, plus hundreds of other nominations and awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the country.

The power couple added another major accomplishment to their incredible track record: During the March 13 event they became the first songwriters of Hispanic descent, and the first husband-and-wife team, to be honored with the coveted Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.  

Gloria Estefan is a University of Miami alumna, and both Estefans have received honorary doctor of musical arts degrees from UM.

The Gershwin Prize is named for the legendary American songwriting team George and Ira Gershwin, whose papers and original music scores were donated by the Gershwin estate to the Library of Congress. It recognizes a living musical artist’s lifetime achievement in “promoting the genre of song as a vehicle of entertainment, information, inspiration, and cultural understanding.” Prior recipients include Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Carole King, Smokey Robinson, and Tony Bennett.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and show host Quincy Jones escorted the Estefans to their seats of honor in the DAR Constitution Hall.

Singing to honor them throughout the evening were Fernando Varela, Rita Moreno, Andy Garcia, Gian Marco, Patti LaBelle, Jose Feliciano, Cyndi Lauper, Emily Estefan, and the cast from the Estefan’s own hit Broadway show On Your Feet, including Ana Villafañe and Mauricio Martinez. Previously taped segments by Pitbull, Jon Secada, Ricky Martin, and others who could not attend due to concert engagements will be included in the show’s final edit. In addition, Lin-Manuel Miranda narrated video segments about the Estefan’s life story.

Music directing the show with 20 onstage musicians were eight-time Grammy- and Emmy-winning producer Gregg Field, who serves on the advisory board for the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, and multi-Grammy nominated pianist Shelly Berg, dean of the Frost School.

At an afternoon sound-check, the Estefans said the significance of being the first Hispanic artists to receive the award is broader than themselves.

“It’s really about representing all minorities, and an honor to represent people with many different backgrounds,” said Emilio Estefan. “It can be hard to achieve your dreams when you have a different kind of last name, or your music is different from the mainstream. I hope this will encourage others to press on.”

Emilio Estefan recalled the struggles the couple faced from record labels when they were launching their careers back in the 1980s. He was told he’d need to change his last name. When he declined to do that, he was told, “then go back to your country.” Undeterred, the Estefans self-produced their albums instead; their catapult to international super-stardom is lore today.

“My advice to young musicians is always, ‘Do what makes you happy. Do what you are,” Emilio Estefan said. “If you are Indian, Jewish, Italian, African American, whatever your background, incorporate your uniqueness, and your personality, into your music.”

“Perseverance, passion, and dignity,” is how Martinez described them during the show taping. “Authenticity, courage, and kindness-personified. This is what an American looks like,” added Villafañe, waving to the Estefans. The audience erupted in extended applause.

The Washington, D.C. audience included many luminaries including Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami; Felicia Knaul, director of UM’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas; Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; plus dozens of members of the U.S. Congress seated side-by-side in enthusiastic support of the honored couple, including former president of the University of Miami, now U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala.

“This show is a reflection of so many different people like us who have moved here to make a better life, who love our country deeply, and are proud to be Americans,” said Gloria Estefan during onstage remarks. She then performed her biggest hit, the rhythmically infectious “Conga” – reimagined as a Brazilian-styled “Samba” complete with whistles, tambourines, and hand drums.

The Estefans describe their ballad writing style as “romantic,” with melodies influenced by boleros and other traditional Latin American styles. Their hit song roster includes “Anything for You,” “Coming Out of the Dark,” ”Don’t Want to Lose You,” “Turn the Beat Around,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” “Words Get in the Way,” “Mi Tierra,” “Reach,” and “Get On Your Feet,” to name just a few.

The show also featured several songs by George and Ira Gershwin, including a touching mother-daughter duet with Gloria and Emily Estefan singing the Gershwins’ timeless “Embraceable You,” originally arranged and orchestrated by Berg for Gloria Estefan’s two-time Grammy-nominated album The Standards.

Emily Estefan also sang a medley of songs by her parents, accompanying herself on a timbales with a dramatic performance that got an effusive standing ovation.

The celebration ended with the cast from On Your Feet dancing down the aisles and up on stage for a final curtain call with all of the artists.

The 2019 Gershwin Prize for American Prize honoring Gloria and Emilio Estefan will air nationally on PBS starting May 3. Check local listings.