Le Stew Culturale
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.
For the Faussert sisters, it was somebody from abroad who helped inspire them to take music seriously enough to attain this level of success and to not shy away from social and cultural themes. It was the famed American jazz singer/actress/community activist Abbey Lincoln, whom they met while working with Les Nouveaux Griots, an organization they helped start as a means to celebrate and promote African culture. In Bordeaux, Les Nouveaux Griots operated a community center where they held hip-hop parties and led workshops in activities like hip-hop, singing and African food. "We wanted to propose to Abbey Lincoln to be one of our honored guests, so we went to do an interview." Excerpts from this interview appear on the track "Abbeylude," where Lincoln states such affirmatives as "Africa is in my hair, in my feet, in my body. I'm an African woman...God is a woman...All that we have is music...The best thing to be is a singer." Celia credits the interview with motivating the girls to pursue singing as careers. After the meeting, she says, "we decided to do it professionally."
Though the sisters achieved success at a relatively young age (Helene is 24 and Celia is 20), they had to overcome a lot of adversity before becoming known internationally. Not only did they have to deal with prejudice because of their cultural background ("We are forbidden people. We are mixed. We are both cultures," explains Celia), but also because of the topics they addressed in their songs. The sisters hit a raw nerve, says Celia, "because we wanted to talk about culture and identity, and they don't like it in France. They have this politics where you shouldn't talk about it. We are French or we are not. You have to be African or French, but not both."
Les Nubians also addressed the notion that racism does not exist in France. "In France, they believe they are not racist because they welcomed African-American people during the war, because they welcomed jazz musicians," says Celia. "If you say to French people, 'There are racist people in France,' they'll tell you, 'No, no, no, it is not true,' but what I know now is that in the United States it is very clear when people are racist, but in France, it's not. It's subliminal."
Compounding the cultural biases they often experienced, many people did not take the twosome seriously because of their gender and perceived musical inexperience. When starting out five years ago in Bordeaux, the women performed a cappella, says Celia, "because musicians didn't really want to play with us. They thought we were young and we were female. They believed that we don't know about music, we didn't know how to read or write music, so they didn't want to play with us."
The Fausserts eventually proved their detractors wrong. After performing one night, a friend of theirs with industry connections approached them and asked if they had a demo. "We said, 'No, we don't have a demo, but we're going to do it,' so we did a demo, and we went to Paris and we found a deal," recalls Celia. They inked a distribution deal with Virgin Records. One of the songs they recorded for the demo, the jazz standard "Round Midnight," ended up appearing on the U.S.-released Jazz À Saint-Germain compilation on the Higher Octave Jazz label.
Once they decided to expand upon their a cappella roots, it took a while for the women to find the right musicians to complement their sound. "We wanted somebody who could sample from African music, from people like Fela Kuti, from African music, and mix it with hip-hop and jazz," says Celia. Eventually they hooked up with a myriad of similar-thinking musicians who had worked with the likes of Ronnie Jordan, Des'ree and Positive Black Soul. They also found the right mix of producers in Mounir Belkhir in France and Lee Hambin, who mans the dials at Soul II Soul Studios in London, to help with their project.
These associations led to the recording of Princesses Nubiennes, an endeavor Celia says the sisters "are satisfied with." Although pleased with the recording, Celia "believes the only place you can be satisfied in music is on stage, because there you cannot rewind. You're feeling the instant." Les Nubians look forward to their first extended tour in the U.S., and if a recent appearance with their backing band on The Chris Rock Show is any indication, American audiences should expect some soul-stirring shows. "Chris Rock was very cool, and [Rock guest the Reverend Al Sharpton] was very funny," laughs Celia.
On the tour, Les Nubians hope to break down cultural barriers. According to the singers, they feel "that it is very important to know about each other. It is very important for us to open this bridge to make African-American people know more about other black people."
Will the differences in language dissuade audiences? Celia thinks not. "Language cannot really be a barrier in music. It's not the main purpose of music." One thing music can achieve, she says, is "to keep the culture where you're from alive."
C'est vrai. Vive Les Nubians.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.