By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
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The artists are supposed to head up a ramp and enter the tent, where they are to meet several members of the media invited by Emilio Estefan Enterprises for the Latin music giant's latest venture: the taping of Nuestra Navidad, a Christmas special scheduled to air December 21 on the nation's main Hispanic television network, Univision (WLTV-23 in Miami), at 9:00 p.m. But before they can disembark from their carts, reporters surround them with TV cameras and tape recorders, asking them over and over again how and where they are going to spend the holidays.
Finally, after much wrangling among various publicists, the artists are pulled away from the reporters. The hope is that the latter will follow the artists into the tent and stay in the area designated for them. It works.
Once there, a rather unassuming pair of singers walks in, one heavyset and tall, the other short and blond, neither of them hunks. One of their publicists later reveals that Leonel García, the big one, and Noel Schajris, the small one, do not care for makeup or hairstyling when they pose for the cameras, as if not being a metrosexual were to confer some degree of musical authenticity. But no one seems to mind that these two are so ordinary-looking in an image-conscious business. The duo, better known as Sin Bandera (Without a Flag), recently enjoyed their first number-one single on Billboard's hot Latin tracks chart with "Mientes Tan Bien" ("You Lie So Well"), a song from their second album for Sony Music Norte, De Viaje (Traveling); the album peaked at number six on the top Latin albums chart.
García and his partner briefly enter the makeshift pressroom before the media ambushes them. Everyone wants an interview, but because the white background of the walls isn't interesting enough for photo ops, reporters ask them to move outside, where the 120-foot Christmas tree (reportedly the tallest of its kind in the U.S.) and its 30,000 lights, the rides, and the Holiday Village amenities serve as a more colorful backdrop.
After several minutes of politely answering questions, the duo is called to perform. An Estefan publicist informs Sin Bandera's road manager, Billy Illanez from WestWood Entertainment, who relays the message to his artists that they have to hop on the cart again.
Fear, if not consternation, must've gripped Sony record label executives when they first realized that the music García and Schajris were writing and singing was not going to be bubblegum pop or Latin rock or rancheras. Instead it was that most American of music sounds, rhythm & blues. In español.
"It was quite risky, especially in Mexico where most people are not used to that kind of sound," concedes Illanez. "Things started out slowly, but they seem to be working out."
It was surprising that the duo found acceptance by singing music that relatively few acts in Spanish tend to pursue. Before Son By Four imploded and its lead singer, Angel López, went solo, the Puerto Rican band was considered the premier R&B group singing in Spanish, at least until Sin Bandera.
"Our influences definitely stem from American R&B," explains García, whose father played in a rock band back in his native Tampico, Mexico, that was led by a charro (cowboy) from Texas. "So my dad's influences became the Doors, Cream, Chuck Berry, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Jimi Hendrix," he says. "Plus my mother lived three years in Anaheim, California, so she also absorbed all this American music that I grew up listening to."
Schajris, meanwhile, grew up in Argentina with the sounds of Nat "King" Cole, Ray Charles, and Janis Joplin. When he discovered Miles Davis, he fell in love with jazz and dreamt of carrying some of that music's feeling into pop. "The answer was to do it with R&B," he explains.
As an adolescent, the 29-year-old Schajris studied music and singing at his country's Conservatorio Nacional de Música. Then, some seven years ago, he moved to Mexico to replace the lead singer of a band called Buenos Aires Funk. "But four months later, the group dissolved," says the singer, "and I had to give singing lessons to survive." An accomplished pianist as well, he recorded a solo album for Sony, Cita En las Nubes (Appointment In the Sky). The album had a distinct R&B influence, a sign of the direction Sin Bandera would eventually take.
For his part, the 28-year-old García began joining rock bands at the age of 14. When he was seventeen he decided to make music his career. "What was then a hobby became something much more serious," he says. He would also record a solo album, but it was never released.