Le Stew Culturale

Les Nubians explore the arts of song, sisterhood and cultural pride.

Sister vocal act Les Nubians learned firsthand the meaning of the word "multi-culturalism" at an early age. Helene and Celia Faussert, born to a French father and a Cameroonian mother, grew up in an interracial household influenced by both African and European traditions. They were raised in Bordeaux, France, and they lived in Chad, West Africa, for a number of years. But neither regards the mixed ancestry as any cause for an identity crisis.

"If I don't believe I'm black and I'm white, I won't be true to myself," says twenty-year-old Celia, the younger of the two. "We are from a mixed couple, so we have to cope with both cultures. If we don't, we die. African and European -- we believe that is our identity, and our parents raised us in knowing both cultures and not choosing one for another." The sisters' upbringing has resulted in good news for music fans via the stylistic hybrid they term "Afropean."

Les Nubians take traditional African music and modern African funk à la Fela Kuti, mix it with American hip-hop and English Soul II Soul and end up sounding something like Sade fronting the Roots. The similarities are not merely coincidental. On their acclaimed debut, last year's Princesses Nubiennes (OmTown/Higher Octave Music/Virgin), the duo covers Sade's "The Sweetest Taboo" ("Tabou"); the Roots did a remix of "Tabou" that hopefully will see a stateside release in the near future. Like the Roots, Les Nubians want to create a sophisticated urban music that is an alternative to the materialistic, player/pimp drek flooding the market these days. "We really like what they're doing," says Celia. "We met four years ago. They were doing their first European tour, and they performed in Bordeaux. They liked what we were doing, and we opened for them."

The Roots, however, are not the only ones getting wise to the smooth groove of the sisters' sound. Released last December, the album took a while to break stateside, but eventually radio warmed up to Les Nubians' jazz/R&B stylings and empowering message of peace and cultural pride. The first single, "Makeda," made its way up the Billboard Urban Adult Contemporary charts and helped land the album an impressive showing on the magazine's Heatseekers chart. The video for the single, which appeared on regular rotation on Black Entertainment Television, showcased the sisters' vocals and was interspersed with these regal women performing in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. The show in New Orleans marked the first time they had set foot in the U.S. The locale, with its large population of people of French and African descent, seems fitting for a group interested in generating dialogue about the history of African diaspora.

History is a recurring theme on Princesses Nubiennes. "Makeda" references the gone-but-not-forgotten African queen of Saba as a means to speak about how history has misrepresented black peoples: "Des passages de l'histoires"/Falsifies et revus de Ramses et Mandela" ("The passage of time has skewed the view of Ramses and Mandela"). To counter this tendency, the sisters emphasize a line from the song in large bold letters in the CD's inner sleeve: "Je chante pour ravivier les memoires/Exhumer les conaissances que la spirale du temp efface" ("I sing to revive the memories/To exhume the awareness that the spiral of time has erased"). This is an important idea, says Celia, "because without knowing where you're from, you don't know where you're going." Other songs, like "Demain (Jazz)," which opens the disc, speak of a vision where world peace and liberation for oppressed peoples are not just empty slogans. "In 'Demain' [French for "Tomorrow"], we want to communicate peace. We are saying we want peace for our people," says Celia.

The issues Les Nubians raise on their songs, whether it is teen abortion in "Si Je T'avais Écouté" ("If I Had Listened to You") or the lingering effects of slavery in "Sugar Cane," the only English-language song, demonstrate that this is no slick, lyrically vacuous, R&B/jazz-hybrid girl group cooked up in some hit factory. These sisters have something to say, and it appears that people are listening. "So far," says Celia, "the response in the United States has been very good. It opens up a lot of discussions; it opens up a lot of sharing."

The success of the single and the album earned Les Nubians two nominations for the Fifth Annual Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards: Best New R&B, Soul or Rap Artist for "Makeda," and Best R&B/Soul Album of the Year by a Group, Band or Duo for Princesses Nubiennes. The women were, understandably, ecstatic over the nomination from an American institution that the legendary Don Cornelius built and made famous. Celia remembers speaking with her singing teacher about the honor. "She is American, she's African-American, and she told me, 'You know what that means? It means that African-American people love you guys, and that's great, because they made this record happen in the United States.'" Les Nubians ended up taking home the award for Best New R&B, Soul, or Rap Artist, much to their astonishment. "It was amazing. It was unbelievable. We didn't think we could win something, no. Because it sounds very weird. It's the first time somebody from abroad win," says Celia.

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