Q&A: Palo!'s Steve Roitstein on Afro-Cuban Funk; Coconut Creek Show Saturday

Miami fusion collective Palo! spells its band name just like that -- exclamation mark and all. But just like the completely musically unrelated Mayday! -- also from Miami, about whom we posted a little earlier -- that extra punctuation is well-deserved. The group calls itself an Afro-Cuban-funk act, and it harnesses all of the spirit that genre tag would imply.

Interestingly, though, the group is led by what we can call an "honorary" Cuban, Connecticut-born Miami transplant Steve Roitstein. He moved to then still-Southern Miami in the late '60s as a boy, but as the population changed, Roitstein got taken with the sounds of Latin beats.

Now, he's a record producer and the proud leader of Palo!, which has quickly become a favorite live staple in Miami. But the band would love to play more in Broward, Roitstein says, and is looking for a possible residency either there or in Palm Beach County. Until then, you can get a taste this Saturday, January 28, at Bottega Wine Bar in Coconut Creek, where Palo! performs at 7 p.m.

We recently reached Roitstein for a quick interview and the scoop on the band for the uninitiated. Here's what he had to say.

Palo! 7 p.m. Saturday, January 28, at Bottega Wine Bar, 4455 Lyons Road, Ste. 2, Coconut Creek. Admission is free. Click here.

County Grind: Besides being a musician yourself, you're also a producer. In a very brief nutshell, what are the highlights of your work in that realm so far? Then, when and why did you start Palo?

Steve Roitstein: As a music producer, my first and most important big break was working with Willy Chirino as coproducer, arranger, musician, and background vocalist on his album Amandote, which contained the song "Lo Que Esta Pa' Ti." That was my first salsa arrangement ever! I worked with Willy for several years, coproducing quite a few of his hit songs.

I went on to work with many artists, notably with Celia Cruz on several hits, including "Celia's Oye Como Va," which was a Latin Grammy winner. I also wrote and produced quite a bit with Venezuelan singer Ricardo Montaner. We had a number-one song together as writers, "Castillo Azul."

I later had a lot of fun fusing musical styles as a composer for U.S. Hispanic advertisers. I began Palo! in 2003 because I felt like after years of making music for other artists, I needed to do my own thing. So I combined my two favorite styles: funk and Cuban music.

A lot of the local funk/fusion types of bands have very fluid lineups. Who are the core members of Palo!?

Palo! performs usually with just five people onstage. Because of the small lineup, I knew I needed to have excellent musicians. These folks are all at the top of their game, and because of that, they are often in demand for other high-profile gigs, so sometimes I have to call other great musicians to take their place for a show or two.

But we've have the same personnel since the beginning: Leslie Cartaya, lead vocals; Ed Calle, sax; Raymer Olalde, timbales; and Philbert Armenteros, congas. Also part of the Palo! family are Tany Gil, who often plays congas with us, and Arturo Arango, who sometimes fills in on sax when Ed Calle is on tour with Arturo Sandoval.

What does the name of the band mean?

Palo! literally means "stick" or "club" in Spanish. But it has all sorts of other connotations, including sexual and religious references. A "palo" could also mean a huge success or, in Puerto Rico, a stiff drink. But in our case, "Palo" is my nickname. It came about because a Cuban man couldn't say "Steve" and instead called me "Estick," which led to "Palo!"

How would you describe the Palo! sound for someone who's never heard it?

We call our music "Afro-Cuban funk." Most of our songs have funky drum loops as the rhythmic foundation, but the songs and lyrics themselves follow the Afro-Cuban legacy. And we also rely heavily on jazz-influenced improvisation as well.

You mostly play in Miami but are looking to play in Broward more. When you have played Broward or Palm Beach counties, how do the crowds respond? How are the shows different from shows in Miami?

Palo! currently enjoys two monthly residencies in Miami: the first Friday of each month at Hoy como Ayer and the third Friday of each month at Pax. We love playing in Broward and Palm Beach counties because we have quite a few fans "across the border," so we're hoping to find a Broward/954 home where we could establish a similar residency in that county.

Our music seems to travel very well, whether it's to another county in South Florida or to New York, Chicago, Boston, or wherever. The crowds are never quite the same. Sometimes the ages and ethnicities vary, but we always seem to connect with the people who come to our shows. And our fans have told us that every time we perform, the show is totally different. That's because we're playing off of the particular energy that the crowd and our fellow musicians bring on that particular night. We love making people happy.

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Arielle Castillo
Contact: Arielle Castillo