Considering that the worldly Afrosoul duo Les Nubians (Helene Faussart shares center stage with her little sister Celia) raps in French and cooks up a tasty bouillabaisse on its debut album, Princesses Nubiennes, it truly is a wonder that the often repressive American urban scenesters who run the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards chose these gals as a future of soul music. Yet the band recently won the Best New R&B/Soul or Rap Group award and isn't taking the honor lightly.
"We were the first foreign band to win this prize, so it does feel great," Helene Faussart explains. "It was like a welcome. It's a beautiful way to move into the millennium and a beautiful progress of the wonderful cooperation between France and America."
While this cultural exchange program may not break down all the walls that keep certain French traditions so, well, French, Les Nubians' warm, cozy soul -- along with recent musical advances by digital cheesemeisters Air, Daft Punk, and Dimitri From Paris -- makes a case for a minicultural revolution of sorts brewing in Europe. Not since the parade of new wave directors of the '60s has France given America such succulent art. But, as Faussart points out, it wasn't part of a big plan to conquer the United States.
"When we first made the album, it was for French-speaking countries," she says. "It was brand new for them -- especially for France. There were new sounds and new lyrics. So it was a kind of dream. We were always internationally open, but it was really a dream. At the beginning, it was really French: We talked about France and Belgium, and maybe Canada and French Africa. When we heard that the album was doing well in America, we thought it was French-speaking people living in America were buying the album. When we arrived in New Orleans and performed for Mardi Gras, we found out that it definitely was not that. We were like, "Wow.'"
Born to a French father and a Cameroonian mother, the Faussarts were exposed to music at an early age. "We used to sing at home all the time," Faussart says. "Like in every black family, we sang for every occasion: Sunday, church, a birthday. Whenever there was something at home."
They globetrotted for a short time (living in Chad for a spell, where most of Princesses Nubiennes's African influences originated) and eventually settled in Bordeaux, France. A backstage meeting with jazz singer Abbey Lincoln encouraged the sisters to seriously consider singing as a career, and within a couple of years their smoky blend of Afro-European R&B and hip-hop began to take shape.
"We don't have parents who were musicians, but we always sang together, especially when we came back from Africa," Faussart explains. "We felt so nostalgic and sad. A way to gather and warm our hearts and express the sadness and nostalgia was singing.
"We listened to a lot of music from our parents. We had all these influences: European influences and African influences. It goes from Miriam Makeba to Ella Fitzgerald. It's so wide. I mean, we listened to all types of music, and we had our cousin at home listening to Prince, the Jacksons, and Marvin Gaye. So we were listening to all the African American music and music from South America, Africa, and the Caribbean."
Princesses Nubiennes indeed sounds like a fusion of everything the Faussarts heard while growing up: blues turns to gospel, which in turn spins into soul. Jazz, reggae, and funk slip into the mix, eventually giving way to the modern-day hip-hop in which the album is steeped.
"I call our music "Afropean soul,'" Faussart clarifies. "It's soul, because what we wanted when we wrote this album was really to speak with human soul. We made this album thinking that we were completely against classification and didn't want to be classified. But it can definitely be called soul music or black music."
There's also a raging sense of self-pride and, more prominently, of girl power drawn throughout Princesses Nubiennes. Like Lauryn Hill, these women embrace both the spirit and the feminine mystique; like Sade (whose "The Sweetest Taboo" is given a French spin on Princesses Nubiennes), their husky voices guide these ideals to soulful resolutions. The songs are in French, with the occasional English lyric or rhyme tossed in for universal appeal ("We grew up listening to foreign records in France without understanding a word," Faussart laughs. "And that's how we practiced English.")
Les Nubians recently began their first U.S. tour with a nine-member band. Jaunts through Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa will keep them busy through the end of the year (at which time, Faussart says, she'd like to be at the Pyramids in Egypt). Then it's time to work on their second album. (Faussart says it's "in progress," but no release date has been set, although some time in 2000 is a target.)
"Our live shows are interactive, so to be in our audience is to be in our show," she explains. "The audience is very important, and they participate a lot during the show. They're not only viewers. In Africa, we have reunions with ancestors dancing around a tree. And everybody would participate in this reunion. The ancestors will sing something and the audience will answer. And we build our show in this kind of way. The audience means a lot. We say, "You're welcome into our home. We're all going to gather together and share positive vibrations.'"
Which is what the Les Nubians experience is ultimately all about. Princesses Nubiennes celebrates the power of self and the spirit of music through the ages. The Faussarts' African and French heritage is summoned repeatedly, giving the album a rustic yet contemporary vibe. And it's about as close to sharing a bed as world music and hip-hop are going to get in the twentieth century.
"On this album, we really tried to make music that looked like us, with all the influences we had," Faussart says. "We were like, "Okay, what do we really hear? What do we want to hear?' We didn't want to be stuck in one style. We asked, how can we extend this mix? And that's the way we sound. We always used to say there are no boundaries to the lyrics and the music. I think at the end of the millennium there are less and less boundaries. We had that one underlined: No boundaries.
"But we have to be aware of our roots, and the roots to me are about my African roots and the things that I know. But I think it's kind of a universal language that the Japanese can understand, because they can get close to their roots. The Portuguese can understand, because they can get close to their roots. The roots are so important, because it's like a tree where the roots can grow. So I talk about my people. But I think it's a more universal message: love, respect, tolerance."
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