Friday, September 30, 2011

PALO! Steve Roitstein and musical hybridizations

Odilia Rivera Santos

Since I decided to interview musicians, they have appeared magically.
One day, whilst perusing my Twitter timeline, I came upon @Gopalo and went to Youtube to check out what this Gopalo was and discovered PALO!, a Cuban music band new to me. I felt like Columbus, discovering an already established entity, so I sent a tweet.

The newly-discovered entity seemed delighted to be asked to be interviewed.
And so began my cyberfriendship with Steve Roitstein -- who was made for social media; he is intelligent, funny, charming and enjoys dealing with humans.

Steve Roitstein has had a varied career that presented him the opportunity to work with musicians he admired and prepared him for a launch into music as an artist.
He is a classically-trained French horn player; he studied at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy . And Roitstein also received a Masters Degree in Media Writing and Production from the University of Miami. His training is the perfect polygamous marriage of art, commerce and marketing necessary for artists today.

Embracing Cuban culture

At an audition for El Grupo Alma, he says he got‘Cubanized’ and not only devoted his time to delving into Cuban culture and music, but he began dating a Cuban woman. You have to study your craft. He was Willie Chirino’s musical director for seven years and credits him with being a great mentor and his work with Chirino 'the most significant collaboration to date' -- Roitstein was in his mid-20s at the time. And he is very proud of have worked with some of the greatest talents in the genre: Oscar de León, Ricardo Montaner, Celia Cruz

There came a time at which he felt ready to make the transition from producer to artist

After making everyone else’s music a priority, he felt it was time to do his own thing. Roitstein says he knows how to make things sound good, but Palo! is not commercial music and there are no big offers. His evolution from a behind-the-scenes musician and producer to artist had to do more with self-fulfillment and self-actualization than money.
Roitstein totally changed his life to be a full-time artist, giving up a lucrative sideline in multinational advertising; he worked on campaigns for Coca Cola and General Motors.
And to be able to focus on music and reduce the money hustle, which may be a big distraction to an artist, he accepted a full-time teaching position at Miami Dade College. This has allowed for a stable existence in which Roitstein can focus on his two loves: music and teaching.

Would classical music training have prevented James Brown from performing Talking Loud and Not Saying Nothing?

With a flashback of Plácido Domingo singing the blues, I ask if classical training somehow dampens the ability to improvise or incorporate different elements in a particular genre of music; in other words, does classical music training disable the funk part of your brain. Roitstein states his classical training prepared him well for his journey into Cuban music because mastering one’s instrument of choice translates to every genre.
Music in general is emotional in nature and when playing Jazz and Latin music you forget about technique

Roitstein’s exploration of Afrocuban and American funk music led to his forming Gopalo, in 2003, with fellow artists Leslie Cartaya (vocals), Philbert Armenteros (vocals, percussion), Ed Calle (sax) and Raymer Olalde (vocals, percussion).

About the band's name

PALO! has many meanings throughout the Spanish-speaking world. In Puerto Rico, we say "Se dio un palo"(he had an alcoholic beverage) "Le calleron a palo"(they beat the hell out of him) and the others I won't share.
But the name of the band has a much simpler explication, having to do with linguistic limitations and not culture. On the way to a gig, a Cuban man asked
¿Usted toca con el grupo, no? ¿Cómo tú te llamas?
No, Steven.
Sí, Estick.

Palo became Steve Roitstein’s nickname among Cuban musicians and friends.

Will there be a collaboration with his brother David Roitstein?

His brother, the pianist, David Roitstein along with bassist Charlie Haden, created the CalArts Jazz Program and he is Chair of the department. There is the possibility of a collaboration, but not on dueling pianos. When I ask if he and his brother would perform together, Roitstein says he does not consider himself a piano virtuoso and claims he’d be embarrassed to play with his brother.

Are . . . you?

Inevitably, as a good writer and tangential journalist, I must ask the question.
“Are you Latino?”
You can never make assumptions about Latinos because we may be descended from Spanish-speaking countries, but race, religion and cultures are varied.
“No, I’m not Latino. I’m a Jewish non-Latino who fell in love with Cuban music as a child, while watching I Love Lucy.”
He was mesmerized by the band on the show, and his interest was piqued as he made friends with Cuban musicians while attending the University of Miami. There were no barriers to his being accepted by Latinos because Roitstein studied Spanish, knew the music business inside and out and, most of all, he was respectful and appreciative for every opportunity to work with Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians.

An artist must handle his or her business

"Representing yourself at clubs and festivals outside of Miami can be difficult because we're well-established in South Florida, says Roitstein, "but in other cities, people haven't heard of us, so it's a cold call."
Roitstein enjoys social media because he has the opportunity to meet strangers and find out about their interests while promoting his music.

On the Artist side of life

PALO!'s first CD This is Afro-Cuban Funk is available on on ¡Tunes. PALO! began a residency at Hoy Como Ayer , and they have performed at Transit Lounge, Jazid, Carnaval Miami and SOBS, one of my favorite NYC spots.
PALO! continues to expand its audience.
The most satisfying thing about this journey for Roitstein is the communication on the stage. "People really love the music, it makes them move and the audience shares the joy of creating this music with the band. I wanted to combine AfroAmerican funk and Afro-Cuban music, expressing what I love," he says.

And that is what Steve Roitstein does.

¡Go, PALO!

Watch PALO!
Book PALO!
Steve Roitstein
PALO! Miami's Afro-Cuban Funk Band
305-332-1338 (mobile)
steve at
text PALO to 65047 to connect with PALO! via text.

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