Music derived from Afro-Latin tradition can often stagnate, falling into easily recognized patterns of folkloric, Latin jazz or salsa conventions. Fortunately, there are always artists that push against these restraints. Groups like Novalima dig deep into tradition to produce an up-to-the-minute mix of dance floor grooves anchored to Afro-Peruvian folklore, and much the same is being done in Colombia by several nu-cumbia artists. In Latin jazz, ensembles like Chicago’s Proyecto Libre or the New York group led by pianist Alfredo Rodriguez practically reinvent the form. And although there is no shortage of excellent salsa bands, even the best of them often fall back on the tried and true.
On the other hand, you have bands like the NYC based Pedrito Martinez Group who pretty much ignore these categorical boxes altogether, swirling everything together in a heady mixture of all three and throwing in a hearty helping of American funk for good measure. While Martinez is receiving plenty of national attention (that’s New York for you), Miami’s PALO! follows a similar, albeit funkier path but remains a bit of a secret to those who haven’t been fortunate enough to hear them on one of their few forays beyond south Florida, where they are immensely popular.
I was lucky enough to stumble on them almost accidentally when they performed at the Celebrate Clark Street Festival in Chicago four years ago. Dynamic vocalist Leslie Cartaya commands your attention while the conga / timbal combo of Philbert Armenteros and Raymer Olalde supply deep Afro-Cuban grooves and occasional chants to los santos. Inventive sax player Ed Calle honks madly and electric keyboardist Steve Roitstein anchors the bass and funk beats as well. The whole juggernaut has you dancing in seconds, even if you’re not necessarily inclined in that direction. Resistance, as they say, is futile.
I was so taken by their sound that I’ve been paying attention ever since, even though they’ve returned to Chicago only once. Now the Festival Cubano is bringing them back with a coveted spot, appearing on stage directly before the legendary El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico.
PALO! was formed by the self-described “Jewish kid from Connecticut” Roitstein in Miami in 2003. Anyone who’s familiar with Fania legend Larry Harlow, “el Judio Maravilloso”, won’t be surprised by that, and it certainly speaks to the power of Afro-Cuban music that such talented artists are seduced by it. Roitstein, who had worked with Willy Chirino, Celia Cruz and others, rounded up three Cubans and a Venezuelan to flesh out his idea of a sound that would combine Afro-Cuban tradition, funk and jazz.
I had the opportunity to ask Steve a few questions about his personal musical journey, the band, and his plans for the future.
AG — How and when did you discover Afro-Latin music and what draws you to it?
SR — I’m from Connecticut, [but] I moved to Miami with my family when I was a kid. Even then, Miami was beginning to feel a strong Cuban influence. I’ve always been fascinated by Cuban music, initially when watching old “I Love Lucy” reruns. My brother David is a few years older than I; he’s a virtuoso musician, pianist, composer and educator. He was the best influence I could have had. He introduced me to amazing music, including the Latin sounds that influenced his writing for the University of Miami Concert Jazz Band. When I discovered Santana in high school, I became obsessed with Cuban percussion. I guess the intricacy, sophistication and excitement of Latin music was what drew me to it.
AG — What was your musical path in the years leading up to forming PALO!?
SR — As a graduate student at the University of Miami, I got a gig playing piano with a Latin band after playing mostly with cover bands that played funk, disco, etc. Once I was surrounded by Cuban Miami, playing in clubs in Calle Ocho, I was hooked. I began learning more Spanish, and eventually became “Cubanized”. Willy Chirino hired me to co-produce his recordings and to be his musical director. That led to working with great artists like Celia Cruz, Ricardo Montaner, Oscar d’ Leon, Cheo Feliciano, and many more.
I’m so proud of the music that I made for all of these incredible artists. Still, toward the late 1990s I began to wonder what it might be like to create something that was mine. I decided to look for a way to combine my passion for Cuban music with my other favorite sound: funk. This experiment eventually became PALO!
AG — What does each band member bring to the table to shape the group’s sound?
SR — I decided early on that PALO! would mostly perform our own songs. I had already had some hits as a songwriter, and I always have appreciated the power of a song. So I wanted to find someone who had a voice that could deliver the goods when we created our songs. When I got to know Leslie Cartaya I knew she was the one. I always knew she had an amazing voice and unique sound, as well as that indefinable likable vibe that I call charisma. But I never imagined that she’d become such a powerful force as a performer and songwriter.
Philbert Armenteros and Raymer Olalde bring the real Cuban fire with their incredible percussion artistry. Philbert grew up in the Yoruba tradition and has become one of the world’s leading experts in Afro-Cuban percussion, dance, and culture. He goes beyond the traditional salsa conga patterns, incorporating different beats from batá and other influences. Raymer is a true percussion virtuoso. He plays all percussion instruments and is a fantastic showman onstage, always bringing high energy to our performances. Together, they find fresh, pulsating rhythms that fuse the best of Afro-Cuban traditions with the funk beats and baselines that I lay down.
Another early decision I made with PALO! was to look beyond the format of traditional salsa brass arrangements. I wanted to leave open the possibility that rather than always performing the same mambos and moñas, perhaps we could allow for more spontaneity in our performances. This is why I chose my long time friend Ed Calle to be our saxophonist. With his genius as a sax player, he becomes the brass section, and even like another keyboard player. He always keeps us guessing; we never know what he’s going to play. And it’s always amazing. After all these years, we all still challenge each other every night, and we have a blast playing together.
AG — Other than get people to dance, what are you trying to achieve artistically with PALO?
SR — Our main goal is to have fun. PALO! is a labor of love for us, and thankfully we only do projects and shows that we want to do. What makes it more special to us is that people enjoy our music. Not only do they like dancing to it; they really get into the songs, they learn the lyrics, sing along with us, and dedicate the songs to each other. This is the biggest artistic satisfaction I’ve ever achieved. We like writing songs that have a fun, uplifting feeling to them, and that make people feel good.
AG — PALO! is completely independent. Are you committed to remaining that way, or hoping for a ‘big break’ and a record deal?
SR — As independent musicians with modest budgets, technology allows us to make our music sound exactly like we want. We can distribute it to the whole world. We have fans all over this planet. We have a great team of people that support us in many ways. We’d be open to partnering with anyone who believes in what we do and wants to help us bring it to more people. As long as we can sustain the fun, we’ll keep going.
PALO! Appears at Festival Cubano Sunday, August 17 at 6:40pm. For information and tickets, visit www.thecubanfestival.com.
About the author: Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.