Carol Cárdenas is used to name-calling. She's something out of a mythological story--one involving people with good genetics reproducing. The stunning daughter of Middle Eastern and Dominican parents, she grew up in New York City, where she easily could have gotten weary of the hoots and catcalls.
But like Blondie's Debbie Harry and Sade's Helen Adu (yep, that's her name), "Si*Sé is a moniker Cárdenas doesn't particularly mind being called.
"People occasionally refer to me as Si*Sé [pronounced see-seh]," she remarks. "I remember when I thought Debbie Harry's name was Blondie, so I can see where they're coming from."
To paraphrase those other guys in Blondie, Si*Sé is a band, dammit. We just don't know what kind of band. Their MySpace page attempts to describe them as "trip-hop/electronica/Latin," but even their own description falls short. And though the New York-based Si*Sé incorporates music from all those genres, to label them "world music" also sells them short. Other bands come to mind--Morcheeba, Brazilian Girls, Everything But the Girl--but those groups seem to work from a more patent and emotive template.
Si*Sé is city music crossed with worldly rhythms, a hybrid that is distinctly American, since all members come from different cultural backgrounds. Their second record, 2005's More Shine , is a proverbial United Nations of sound. Cárdenas sings in both English and Spanish, her lyrics serving as a deep meditation on the transience of love and life.
Pan-American soul, drum 'n' bossa nova--call it what you want. Whatever it is, there's no denying that it is utterly original and meticulously orchestrated. Yet, sadly, in an industry in which bands often depend on car commercials and teenage TV melodramas to catch a break, chances are you'll never hear a Si*Sé song. And that's because they're completely unmarketable--too mellow for alternative radio and too syncopated for the smooth-jazz yuppie's next wine-and-cheese event.
"We've been called schizophrenic," says keyboardist and producer Cliff Cristofaro, a former New York DJ who works in Si*Sé under the name U.F.LOW. "They'll ask, 'What do they fit into?' But, really, it's up to the audience."
Even their audience, which has grown into a very steady and obsessive fan base, is a mishmash of cultural identities. Hippies, goths, scenesters, artists, gays, sorority girls--they're all there, lined up hours in advance for shows. And for one night, they're dancing together.
And that may be the key to approaching Si*Sé: In order to get it, you have to be open-minded about not only music, but about the world in general. Rich Isaacson, former head of legendary hip-hop label LOUD Records (he gave us Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep), made More Shine the first release on his new label, Fuerte Records. He sees things the same way the band does and, for a label head, seems abnormally content with letting them avoid being crammed into a singular, marketable niche.
"There's no specific place, no particular audience that it's clearly belonging to," he says, "so it's very dependent on online buzz, lifestyle and word-of-mouth."
Cárdenas and Cristofaro know a little something about buzz and the power of word-of-mouth. Despite only living a subway ride from each other, they had met only twice before they recorded the first Si*Sé demo in 2000. The two were different in so many ways that a collaboration seemed incomprehensible. He was a Brooklyn B-boy raised on a steady diet of graffiti art and underground hip-hop. She was an uptown drum 'n' bass DJ with classical vocal training and a predilection for salsa and merengue.
"It seemed like we were coming from different places musically but heading towards the same direction," he says, noting that Cárdenas' voice turned him on to a more sensual, smoother side of the music.
"When I heard her... angelic singing complement what I was working on, it was something that turned me on to a new style. At the same time, we both wanted to be doing something wholly original."
The five-song demo generated massive buzz throughout the city, and major labels were soon courting the duo. One problem: They'd never even played a live show together. How would they translate that sound without a proper band, something they'd never intended to do? So they asked a bunch of friends to play with them--percussionist Neil Ochoa, bassist Morgan Phillips, drummer Ryan Farley and violist Jeannie Oliver, who each came from entirely different musical backgrounds. They met for the first time, had three rehearsals and then played a tiny club in New York's Lower East Side.
Although, as Cristofaro reflects, "we all didn't really know what we were doing," the show was impressive enough to get them signed to Luaka Bop Records, the label owned by former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.
Just like that, they were releasing an album (2001's Si*Sé ), and heading out on a full-fledged amphitheatre tour with Byrne and his band.
"We went from playing literally rooms with a capacity of 200, to places with a capacity of 5,000 to 10,000," Cristofaro recalls. "And this was our first tour! I almost had a panic attack."
The band continued to tour after that, playing to smaller audiences. So when More Shine was released at the end of 2005, the album quickly shot up the iTunes chart, becoming the No. 1 World Music Album and No. 10 overall, next to heavy hitters like Eminem and Mariah Carey. They currently have seven songs on the iTunes Top 50 world-music track list. Though the masses were having a hard time finding their record in stores (or at least locating the section it was filed under), the band was finding those fans online.
"I think that's the challenge with us Americans is that we're always trying to paraphrase things and put them into an American context," Cristofaro says. "This is something real. Why try to suppress it or hide it because mainstream America may not like it? Who cares? You have to be true to yourself. It's frightening sometimes, but it keeps you on edge; it keeps you alive."
"We're not afraid to try something new," adds a suddenly passionate Cárdenas. "We're not afraid if it sounds good to us. We want to take people on a ride and make them move. We're just getting started."
Si*Sé plays with Los Amigos Invisibles at House of Blues on Saturday, Feb. 17. Doors open at 8 p.m. $20-$23. 619-299-BLUE.