At the entry of Kimbaracumbara, a small restaurant club hidden between an art gallery and a Chinese restaurant in Little Havana, there's a painting of the Virgin Mary with a baby Jesus and three angels holding her afloat. Celia Cruz's song "Quimbara" plays in the background. A massive chandelier with over 20 tiny small lanterns with dim light.
This past Saturday night, Afro-Cuban funk band Palo! and 70-plus fans let loose with mojitos in hand this past Saturday night. The band's conga player Philbert Armenteros was running late and Steve Roitstein, the producer and keyboard player started by saying, "When this guy is late he's really late." It was almost midnight and they started anyway. Roitstein laid down funk beat drum loops with his keyboard. Saxophone player, Ed Calle, followed. A few minutes later, timbales player Raymer Olade joins them.
You might think they were just another groovy jam band with Latin spice thrown in the mix. But their beats cross borders and time. When lead singer Leslie Cartaya took the mike, the notes leaving her lips were pieces of Cuba; Havana, quimbombó [okra], tobacco. She had complete control of her voice. High, low, soft, rough she did it all with Cuban flare. Off stage she's a soft spoken mildly shy 28-year-old woman that's sweeter than a señorita (a Cuban pastry with layers of sweet creme topped with powdered sugar or chocolate). She greeted fans with hugs and kisses and hung around after the show for pictures. She began studying music in Cuba when she was 12 years old. At age 19 she landed in Miami and began singing in clubs around town. A few years later she met Roitstein, who was putting together a band. He has produced music with Willy Chirino, worked with Celia Cruz and while producing music for advertisers, he experimented with different sounds that led him to sync Latin rhythms with urban beats. Band members Calle, Olade and Armenteros soon came along to complete the sound - which includes Cuban, Brazilian, and Puerto Rican influences but resembles none.
"It's Afro Cuban funk, that's the best way to describe it. The Afro Cuban influence is in the percussion, in the vocals and in the songwriting," Roitstein says.
The band gets its name from Spanish folks mispronouncing Roitstein's first name. "They would say "Stick" instead of Steve so it just stuck," he says. Stick in Spanish is palo.
On Saturday, timbales player, Olade, got the crowd to put hands up in the air, swing them from side to side. "Y pa' qui, y pa' alla, vamos a gozar," he said. Cartaya started off low -- her voice blending in with the timbales and sax. Then she belted out the first line to their song La Habana Buena. The music lifted people off their seats. The few still at their tables put down their mojitos and beers and hypnotically moved to the dance floor -- hips, arms and feet following the beat and a green strobe. Roitstein dedicated a song to the gossipers, to the ones that love to talk about people and just can't keep their mouth shut: Lengua Larga.
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The group, which has been playing Miami clubs since 2003, is in the last stages of releasing a first album, Afro-Cuban funk. The set at Kimbaracumbara ended around 2 a.m. and my boyfriend took the accompanying shots. They're dark, dirty and rough around the edges. It's the look they're going for and everyone is digging it even the groupies watching on the side.
Catch Palo's next performance tonight at Transit Lounge at 9 p.m.; no cover. More information go to gopalo.com.
-- Aiyana Baida