Steve Roitstein on Naming Palo!: "There Was a Cuban Who Couldn't Understand My Name"
PALO! may only have one album to their name (and a second one underway), but their ritmo y sazón has made a large impact in Miami's local music scene for the past decade.
The guys and lady of the Afro-Cuban funk band was the brainchild of Steve Roitstein, who after a successful music career decided he wanted to do something for himself.
So he gathered other talented musicians, among those sax player Ed Calle, y ¡pa!: you've got PALO!
Crossfade spoke with the front man and founder himself just in time for PALO!'s May 17 show at PAX about naming the band and a big ten year anniversary bash.
Crossfade: You've performed with Tito Puente, Julio Iglesias, and even won a Latin Grammy in 2001. It seems that you've had a pretty successful career in music. What made you want to start your own band?
Steve Roitstein: I have a lot of years doing great work that I was proud of with amazing artists Celia Cruz, Willy Chirino, and all those kind of people, and had a long run doing creative work for U.S. Hispanic advertising where I would provide a jingle or musical score to an ad campaign. Around 2000, I started to realize I needed to do something that was mine, not for someone else, with me and my collaborators. That's why we started PALO!
What was the turning point in your career?
A lot of lucky breaks. A lot of hard work. The first lucky break was probably getting recommended to Willy Chirino when I first started out arraigning and producing in the studio. That became my school for Cuban music and I learned a lot about Cuban and Latin music with him. Because he was a pretty high profile guy at the time, a lot of people heard my work and that was probably the biggest break to happen to me in developing as a song writer and producer.
How did the name PALO! come about?
Funny, because a lot of people think it has something to do with an Afro-Cuban religion and it really doesn't. It came from a funny situation where there was a Cuban man who couldn't understand what my name was. It's Steve and he didn't get it. So then I told him, 'Es como Esteban pero en Ingles.' ['It's like Esteban but in English.'] 'Ah, Estick.' He corrected me in saying my name, and I laughed like you did, and that stuck with me. When we started the band we were looking for something short and easy in English and Spanish. And now I'll be walking down the street and people call my name, 'Oye Palo!'
How were you able to get Ed Calle, Leslie Cartaya, Phil Armenteros, and Raymer Olalde to join PALO!?
The chronological story is I had the idea for the band and didn't really have a set idea of who I wanted to be in it. I know I really wanted to have good vocals because I'm a song writer. I didn't just want a jam band... I didn't want to dictate to every person exactly what they wanted to do. I also knew I didn't want a really big group, so that meant really good musicians.
I met Leslie [PALO!'s singer] and asked her if she wanted to give it a try. This was maybe around 2001 and at the time she said, 'I've never really done anything exactly like that, but I'll try it.' So we started working together and writing songs... and she's just a natural. We got the percussion guys. Ed I've known for most of our lives since I was a freshman at U.M. He knew my work and even though I knew him...I wanted to have the concept clear before I invited him in the band because I wanted him to know what he was going to be getting involved in, so that's why I wanted until I had the concept and songs pretty clear. It turns out it wasn't really necessary because he said, 'If you're involved in it, I'm in.'
Your music is described as "Afro Cuban funk." If you had to choose just one song that describes PALO! which one would it be?
We have kind of like a couple different personalities, so it's hard to choose just one one of them. Some are fun songs, not very deep necessarily and the others are more spiritual, which a lot grew out of improvisations. "Lengua Larga" has a strong funk low end and up vocals and percussion, [it's] all very Cuban. If I had to choose one, it would be that one. A lot of people like it. It's funny because gossip is one of the human traits I really dislike. That song was written about a guy that I knew that I shared something that was supposed to be kept in confidence, but he didn't keep it. A lot of people assume it's about a woman, but it's not. It's about a man, and it's universal...el chismoso which is very typical in Latin culture.
What are your future plans for PALO!? Do you plan on expanding outside of Miami?
Our current plans as far as playing at other places... there's a handful of good venues in town we might play at soon. We're looking [to book] outside of town. We've been to New York, Boston, Chicago, and learned that our music travels well with other people. It looks like we're gonna start booking some tours outside of Miami in major cities in the U.S. and Europe. It's not officially announced yet. Our immediate thing this summer is we're working on our new album. We have a lot of songs that we've written. It should be out in the fall. We don't have the date set yet, but sometime in July or August we're gonna have a really big shindig for our tenth anniversary...where we could show our appreciation to everybody who has supported us over ten years.
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