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Estaire Godinez

Spotlight: Estaire Godinez

Song Of The Heart

Estaire Godinez opens up about her multicultural musical upbringing, the art of languages, and how Prince gave her a pass on the dress code at Paisley Park.

Contributing Writer: Father Fred Shaheen

Back in the summer of 1999, Prince summoned the NPG for a rehearsal. “Everyone in Prince’s band was always dressed up, no matter what,” Estaire relates in a recent phone conversation. “I thought that was cool, but I did not. I dressed cute...but not up!” Prince noticed Ms. Godinez standing there in her casual attire and quipped, “Comfort first, right?” In response, the singer/songwriter/percussionist made a snap-snap gesture across her face and fired at Mr. Symbol her trademark catchphrase: “Ehh Quu Meee!” She then started laughing and walked away towards the rehearsal room. “That made Prince laugh,” she recalls fondly.

The Artist Formerly Known As ‘Jefe.’

Estaire Godinez, a world renowned musician and self-described Renaissance Woman, came into Prince’s orbit in the spring of 1999 and stayed till the end of that year. It was a year that would signal somewhat of a shift in the Purple One’s usual way of doing business. “There where many in his group that would tell me that this was the first time since playing with Prince that he was so relaxed and not on such a strict rehearsal schedule,” she says. Estaire eventually did glam it up for that rehearsal, which turned out to be an actual performance, one of many late-night jams at Paisley which Prince would open up to the fans. Beginning with a show at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that Memorial Day, till just before the Rave 2000 show at Paisley Park in December, Estaire spent the better part of a year as a percussionist and background singer with the New Power Generation. She would accent the band’s thick funk with her own rhythmic flourish and Latin beat. “Kirk [Johnson, the NPG’s drummer] and I would talk. He did a lot of programming during that time,” she states of the 1999 incarnation of the NPG. How much musical direction did Prince give her? “Not too much,” she says. “He might say, ‘A little more like this...a little more like that,’ but he really let me do what I wanted.” Estaire told me how she called Prince “Jefe” (pronounced ‘heh-feh’). “One time Prince turned around smiling and asked me, ‘what did you call me?’ ‘I called you ‘Jefe.’ It means ‘boss,’” she told him. His Royal Majesty replied, “I’m not your boss.” “You pay me, don’t you?” she asked, walking away. “We were both laughing,” she said. “He just shook his head.”

Oaktown Roots.

Historically, the Bay area has been home to a number of Latino musical dynasties: the Flores family and the Martinez family come to mind. Then you have the Godinez and the Escovedos. “My parents are from Mexico, so we grew up speaking Spanish and listening to Mexican music and jazz.” Estaire’s brothers are all musicians and songwriters. “Out of the nine of us, five continue working as professional musicians.” Of her brother, Carlos, Estaire says enthusiastically, “he is a great singer-songwriter.” She is excited to be part of his upcoming album. “Peter Michael [Sheila E.’s brother] will be on it as well.” Estaire speaks admirably of all her siblings. David, another brother, makes music with “nuances of Sting, Eddie Palmieri, Steely Dan, Peter Gabriel...if that makes any sense.” She praises the talents of Salvador, Felipe and Alfredo; and of her sisters, Beatriz and Leonor. “My sister Nena is an amazing artist and painter.” Growing up, Estaire says that her musical upbringing consisted of “the piano playing in the house, singing at my parents’ parties and watching musicals and comedies on TV. Lucille Ball made everyone laugh,” she recalls. “That's why I wanted to be like her. My mother, along with Lucille Ball, were my icons.” Estaire’s parents, both of Mexican heritage, played guitar and sang. And both painted. “My father longed to be an artist, but with nine mouths to fill,” she says, “he formed his own company [Salmargo Paint] instead.” Mr. Godinez perfected his English by taking a job as a radio DJ in Santa Rosa. “He did Radio Theater too and was one of the founders of the Spanish Speaking Community Center in Oakland,” she says. At home, they listened to traditional Mexican music - Agustin Lara, all the Maharachi trios. Estaire’s brothers got into Rare Earth, Stan Getz, Iron Butterfly and Sergio Mendez. This environment, coupled with her own love of Celia Cruz and Motown, produced in Estaire a musical palette that was eclectic and borderless. At the age of 16, she started doing cabaret and singing professionally. “I sang with Sheila’s uncle [percussionist Coke Escovedo],” she recalls. She also played soccer. Aside from being indomitable on the field - “we won the league in California!” she recounts with excitement - Estaire’s team also included the aforementioned Ms. Escovedo, a future key player in the Prince universe. Estaire loved drawing and design. When she wasn’t pursuing her creative muse, she worked in retail. At one point, Ms. Godinez was offered the position of assistant manager and assistant to the buyer on the second floor of Macy’s, but didn’t take it. “I wanted to move to Europe and play my music, and I knew if I accepted that job, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she says without regret.

First Impression. Second Chance.

Three months after turning down the job at Macy’s, at age 20, Estaire was asked to join a well known salsa band in Amsterdam. She moved to Europe with her boyfriend, the late Stephen Frankevich (trumpeter, formerly with The Mahavishnu Orchestra). Upon her arrival in Holland, Estaire quickly learned how to improvise: “Unfortunately there was just half a band and no gigs,” she recounts. She took on a variety of jobs - dance teacher, hair stylist, chef, masseuse, makeup artist - while she waited for her band to take off. When it finally did, Salsa Moderna played gigs everywhere for three years, including the prestigious North Sea Jazz Festival. It was in Holland that Estaire really got into playing and singing jazz. Relationship problems brought Stephen and her to the island of Mallorca for a year (“soaking up the musical vibes”); but soon the gravity of their situation would bring Estaire back to the US alone. “I didn’t like it. I felt out of place,” she remembers. Estaire returned to Europe to work on her music, and this time she went to Madrid. One time a friend invited her to her concert with famous singer-songwriter Luis Eduardo Aute at The Plaza de Toros Las Ventas de Madrid. Estaire went to the show ready to promote herself. The plan was that she would give her number to the members of Aute’s band, who were part of another popular Madrid band, Suburbano. When she got there, however, self doubt almost paralyzed her: “It was like I had cement on my tongue,” she remembers, adding how she was nearly a no-show for what was to become her musical break. Estaire recalls heading for the Metro to go home. As she was buying the ticket and going down to the ramp, she told herself, “Estaire, what are you doing? Go back!” In an epiphany worthy of James Joyce, she suddenly saw what was in the balance: it was either seize the opportunity to live out your musical dream; or completely forfeit. Ms. Godinez ran back and introduced herself to the two band members still there: “I just wanted to let you know that I sing and play percussion and if you ever need a percussionist I am available,” she told them. Impressed that she could play and sing at the same time, Suburbano took her on. Thus began Estaire Godinez’ career as one of the most sought after and well-paid female musicians in the world. “Spain embraced me and I embraced Spain!” she says lovingly of the place she still calls home.

Speaking in Tongues.

In true Renaissance Woman fashion, all of Estaire Godinez’ arts - her drawing, her jewelry making, her painting, and her story writing - are self-taught. She and her siblings learned English at school, but her father insisted they speak Spanish at home. In addition, Estaire speaks Portuguese, Italian and a little French. “I am drawn to languages,” she says. Marrying two of her loves - her affinity for languages to her passion for music - Estaire developed an interest in translating songs. “You have to do it musically,” she says, noting how a straight translation of the words doesn’t always work best. Rather, nuances and fluidity of meaning have to be considered, and words have to be coupled with the rhythm of the music. Estaire translated a ballad, “If You Love Me,” into Spanish for Stokley Williams, lead singer of Mint Condition (Estaire adds, “and also an incredible drummer”). She has in the works a project with songwriter Leon Ware (Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” and Maxwell’s “Sumthin Sumthin”) which had begun prior to his death in 2017. Estaire plans to continue work on it with the cooperation of his estate. Has she done any translating for Minneapolis’ most famous musician? “Prince really wanted me to translate songs for him. We talked about it a lot,” she says, “and I started working on some songs.” However nothing became of the project. Estaire bristles with pride as she mentions one particular aspect of her professional relationship with Prince: “He used to tell me he loved that I wore my heritage on my sleeves!” Coming from a man so meticulous about his own ruffles and cuffs, it was no small compliment.

The Cold Never Bothered Her Anyway.

Estaire Godinez spent three years in Amsterdam and eleven years in Madrid. After the stint with Suburbana, she started exploring flamenco, and then fronted other outfits, the Face Band and Adama. She describes the former as “going from almost punk rock to a more European Pop sound.” During her time overseas - 14 years total - she made a name for herself professionally. Still, the desire to keep growing and to connect to her family and musical culture called her back to America. At first she landed in Maui. There, she made the acquaintance of American composer and musician Peter Schimke. He convinced Estaire that her Latino, salsa-flavored vibe might be well-suited to the burgeoning scene in the Twin Cities. And so she was off again. After meeting Stokley Williams in a Minneapolis drum shop, she began performing sellout shows with, among others, guitarist Mike Scott (of Prince’s NPG/ Justin Timberlake), sax player Eric Leeds, and the aforementioned Messrs. Schimke and Williams, all stalwarts of Minneapolis’ music scene. And just how did this Mexican-American, California-born, European expat take to the Minnesota winters? “I love the snow and I loved walking around the lakes during the day after the first snow when it is quiet and all you see is a blanket of white covering everything,” Ms. Godinez asserts. “Then I would listen to my footsteps and they would go ‘gwiish, gwiiish’ on the snow. Then you hear faintly the sound of a violin or a cello playing somewhere. And it’s magical.” One night Estaire was playing at Bunkers with TC Jammers when Prince walked in with Patti LaBelle. During a break, The Purple One approached Estaire and told her that he really liked her voice. Afterwards, bandleader Bobby Vandell told her Prince had been looking for her. Mr. Symbol started frequenting her shows. One night at Sophia’s, Estaire recalls, he approached and offered, in his uniquely Prince-like way, to hire her: “He asked me when Memorial Day was, and said they were going to be in Las Vegas and would I like to come.” Estaire wasn’t 100 percent certain what he was asking, but she would find out soon enough.

Time Space And Darkness Do Not Exist.

1999 - It was now the actual calendar year which, seventeen years earlier, Prince had dreamed and written about. Simultaneously, in fact. His Royal Highness - the Artist Affectionately Known As “Jefe” - had forsaken his given name and was going instead by an unpronounceable symbol. He was also fond of saying that time didn’t exist. There was no official tour that year; Prince had said he wanted to take some time for study and reflection. And the next album, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, was being prepared for release. During 1999, after Las Vegas, Estaire played on many but not all of the Prince gigs. She wasn’t a salaried employee; unlike the others in the NPG, Estaire fronted her own band. In a way she was her own boss who, when she wasn’t booked somewhere in Loring Park or the Latin Quarter - both Twin Cities musical hotbeds - would become a side player in another boss’ band. And that band just happened to be Prince and the New Power Generation.

Sometimes I Feel Like…

Did Estaire Godinez participate in any studio recordings with Prince over the course of that year? She tells me about a cover of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do” that was taped but didn’t get used. In spite of Prince’s self-imposed year of reflection, there was no shortage of live performances. Two of the most notable that feature Estaire are the Mill City Music Festival, a Labor Day Minneapolis event that saw Prince headlining over hometown favorites-made-big the Jayhawks and Semisonic; and the taping of Septimo, a Spanish TV show, in November. The latter has become, particularly in the three years since his death, essential YouTube viewing for folks who only just lately recognize the wonders of Prince’s supreme chops on the guitar. “When he played ‘I Feel Like A Motherless Child...’” Estaire recalls, then stops (Search it up. Sometimes you can’t find words). The day after that performance, Estaire found herself back in Madrid, along with Prince and the NPG, for a one-off gig at Sala Aqualung. The band had arrived late; promoters were harried and the audience was disgruntled. Estaire recalls Prince not being fazed a bit: “He was calm.’” His cool at the situation seems consistent with his then-lately embraced zen-like approach to deadlines and details. “Time is a trick” and all that, remember? He expressed a like-minded philosophy while delivering MTV’s TRL a video clip of Rave’s first single, “The Greatest Romance Ever Sold” weeks after the expected date. Prince came close to apologizing to host Carson Daly for the tardiness of the video, but corrected himself: “It was finished exactly when it was supposed to be finished.” One of Estaire’s most vivid memories of Spain this time around was not of music, but of fashion. She recalls getting a makeover for Spanish TV: “They did my hair, cut it short, and put the make-up on me.” And the Casual Rehearsal thing at Paisley? Apparently it didn’t take. But Estaire always remained true to herself. “Comfort first? Yes! But still cute.”

Paisley Park And Beyond.

Between 2000 and 2005, while living in Los Angeles, Estaire performed with jazz giant George Benson. After that, she played with Giorgia, a singer whom she describes as “the Italian Christina Aguilera.” Estaire has a great fondness for the Italian way of life, particularly the femininity of its women. “They dress with these long or knee length skirts with little heels and they ride their bikes everywhere,” she says with admiration. She has acted in NBC’s Private Practice; and in the films, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2007) and La Mission (2009), even singing on the musical score of the latter. In 2015, she authored a novel, The Yelva, for which she also wrote the screenplay. Estaire expects a film version of The Yelva to be produced in the near future, and is currently writing a trilogy about reincarnation and the Aztecs. She has played and sang on over 60 recorded albums, has released two as a headline musical act - Live at The Dakota (2003) and This Time (2010), both featuring Eric Leeds and Mike Scott - and is planning her third. What does Estaire recall most about the Minneapolis genius with whom she played but who claims he was not her boss? “His professionalism.” She describes how at one particular show, the boom stand (used for mounting the microphone) kept leaning very low on the stage. So low, in fact, that Estaire started walking towards the stand to adjust its height. Before she could do it, Prince very gently stayed her arm. “He told me to leave it where it was,” she recalls, describing how he then dropped down to the floor and used the lowered boom and mic as a prop. “He sang into it like it was supposed to be there, like it was part of the act,” she says. “It was just amazing!”

Song Of The Heart.

Of her own artistic philosophy, Estaire Godinez says this: “I never play songs because they are popular, but because they touch my heart. When I sing a song, I try to make it heartfelt and share the message in an honest way.” One number she regularly incorporates into her sets is Shirley Horne’s “Here’s To Life.” Asked about her favorites from Prince’s catalogue, Estaire names “When Doves Cry” first, and then belts out a few bars from a second choice (“Scandalous”) into the phone. This Renaissance Woman says she has her own arrangement of “Doves” that she will perform soon with her band (which includes, among others, her sister, Beatriz Godinez Muniz), and which she also hopes to record and release. I composed a musical tribute to Prince,” she says, “but he never heard it.”

Reflecting on songs from her own catalogue, Estaire singles out this lyric from Just Say Yes: “Looking back at all the time that I have misspent, I guess it's not so bad cuz it brought me to here.” Estaire Godinez believes that nothing is ever misspent. “There’s a lesson in every fall, victory and defeat,” she states firmly. Call it a pearl of wisdom, call it a philosophy of life. Or as the musical penguins in Happy Feet might do, call it a heartsong. Thankfully for all, Estaire Godinez found hers.


© Father Fred Shaheen & PRN Alumni Foundation