Les Nubians — One Step Forward
Will "Les Nubians" continue to use music to unite people from different cultures?
From the start of their musical career, it was clear to Célia and Hélène Faussart that to be successful, they had to look beyond national borderlines.
In 1998, when their deal with the record label Virgin France failed to materialize, the sisters waited while it shopped their debut CD around to its other labels in search of one that would release it.
That is when Higher Octave Music, a little-known label from Malibu, Calif., stepped in.
"When we performed in Japan, they saw us performing and they took the bet," said the duo in a Paris interview published at Africana.com. "They took it to America and they were like, ‘We'll try.’ So they sent the CD to college radio and college radio just picked it up."
Over the summer of 1999, U.S. college students catapulted Les Nubians' first album, "Princesses Nubiennes," to commercial and critical success.
The album sold close to 400,000 copies in the United States and nearly one million worldwide — long before the sisters gained a following in their native France.
Les Nubians' first album draws upon the sisters' diverse experiences as the daughters of a French father and Cameroonian mother. The sisters alternated between living in war-torn Chad — where their accountant father was volunteering for the Red Cross while Chad was at war with neighboring Libya — and Bordeaux, France.
The sisters' French-language lyrics draw on the collective heritage of the African diaspora and explore themes like history, femininity and humanity — all of which is why their music can hardly be called French pop.
Recorded in London, and featuring performances with The Roots and Soul II Soul, "Princesses Nubiennes" is a blend of breathtaking harmonies and sensual melodies that are combinations of many different musical styles.
These styles are key components to what sets their music apart — and the reason why the sound is so hard to categorize.
Their music is inspired by an eclectic group of artists — from Senegalese folk singer Youssou N'Dour and African-American soul legend Sade, to hip-hop group Black-Eyed Pea and R&B star Jill Scott.
It is a mix of traditional rhythm and blues, francophone soul and contemporary hip-hop beats — with a sophisticated "Afropean" sound.
Far from following the traditional path of French-speaking black musicians — which would have classified them as either rap or "world" music artists — the sisters stand apart.
The upbeat tempos that Les Nubians bring to audiences on "Princesses Nubiennes" unite fans worldwide — regardless of nationality. And the duo's lyrics hold an important meaning as well, even though it is somewhat hidden behind the sisters' appealing rhythms and sweet voices.
They address themes that appeal to a global audience, while sprinkling their songs with English lyrics.
Les Nubians' music has caught on with many American fans of the soul and R&B genre, including the new generation of neo-soul listeners.
The neo (new) soul movement is populated by socially conscious artists, whose influences include past R&B legends Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Commodores and James Brown.
The movement discusses love, identity and life. Love not only in regard to relationships, but also love for one another — and love for humanity.
In this light, it is easy to see why the sisters chose "Les Nubians" as their group name.
Nubia was the first black civilization. It is their way of paying tribute and talking about black people as one people looking back in history. This is their essential idea — being one people.
The sisters embrace the essential idea of representing the African diaspora as one entity in the 21st century. Their songs reflect the African diaspora that technically speaking expands from Europe to Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States.
"Sugar Cane," written in English, offers promises of hope after the exploitation of black slaves in the cane fields. Songs like "Makeda" — which ranked 36th on the R&B hit singles chart in 1999 — and "Princesse Nubienne" are written as homage to African women.
These songs transcend history and rise above national identities to embrace the link apparent between all women and men of Africa, along with the African diaspora.
These African solidarity themes predominate in the first album, while it also addresses more global issues like abortion, history, peace and love.
Perhaps the best example is on "Voyager," a song of travel that embraces what unites all people from Río, to Yaoundé, to Paris. Rather than promote nationality, the Faussart sisters advocate being a "citizen of the Earth."
It is a song that shows humanity shares the same feelings of pain, love and war. The sisters best express this when they sing, "Je me déclare citoyenne universelle" ( I am a universal citizen), and "Je m'offre le passeport de Terrien" (I carry an "Earth" passport).
Five years later, on Les Nubians' new album, "One Step Forward," the duo literally takes what started in 1998 one step further.
A sweet mix of reggae, R&B and West African drumbeats, the second album is a feat in cross-cultural collaboration, as well as international marketing.
Recorded from Jamaica to Côte D'Ivoire, New York to Paris — Les Nubians alternate between singing in English, Spanish and French, as well as in a Cameroonian dialect.
They completely disregard the boundaries of language, skipping from English to French within the same sentence.
With the exception of the song, "La Guerre" (The War), which explores human suffering as a cause of war and questions the necessity of such violence, the songs on "One Step Forward" are more introspective and personal, dwelling more on emotion than politics.
On songs like "Insomnie" (Insomnia), "Amour à Mort" (Love You to Death), "Unfaithful/Si infidèle," Les Nubians explore human emotions in the French language against a backdrop of slow and sensual African rhythms.
These songs contrast sharply with the more upbeat reggae-inspired tracks — "J'veux d'la musique" (I want music), "Temperature Rising," "Brothers and Sisters" and "El son reggae" (The Sound of Reggae).
Straightforward and upbeat, these songs model traditional reggae refrains and classic reggae beats.
What is unique about the songs is not their rhythms or messages — the power of the Almighty, the beauty of music, etc. — but rather the use of English, Spanish and French lyrics.
By using the three languages fluidly, these songs accurately reflect the afro-Caribbean diaspora, which extends from French-speaking Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti to Spanish-speaking Cuba and Puerto Rico to English-speaking Jamaica.
Finally, "Saravah" and "Immortel Cheikh Anta Diop" talk about African heritage and embracing African myths, in the hope that they will stay alive.
The Faussart sisters recently moved from Paris to Philadelphia, where many American neo-soul artists — Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Vivian Green, and the London-born Floetry — all reside.
This move coincides with their shift in identity — they now strive to cover much more than just the French-African diaspora.
As their second album illustrates, the music of Les Nubians unites musical influences from Western and Eastern Africa, Europe, the United States and the Caribbean. And their lyrics carry messages of hope for people who speak French, English, Spanish and African dialects.
As Les Nubians move forward with political messages that seem most relevant to women — and particularly women of the African diaspora — their message is increasingly global.
After all, if you were born in France, were raised in Chad, then travel to Japan to get your music heard in the United States, you must know something about what unites people across cultures, nations and societies.
The sisters admit that being a black female singer in France — even in the 21st century — is not easy, especially if her music does not fit into preexisting musical categories. Yet, Les Nubians stand out because they are willing to venture outside the traditional confines of categorical music and pursue a different way of life.