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Considering that the worldly Afro-soul duo Les Nubians raps in French and cooks up a tasty sonic bouillabaisse on its debut album, Princesses Nubiennes, it truly is a wonder that the often parochial American urban scenesters who run the Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards chose these gals as the future of soul music. Yet the band, led by Helene Faussart and her younger sister, Celia, 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 says. "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 the United States such succulent art. But, as Helene 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 explains. "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 just French-speaking people living in America who 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," Helene Faussart recalls. "Like in every black family, we sang for every occasion: Sunday, church, a birthday." They globetrotted for a short time (living in Chad for a spell, where most of Princesses Nubiennes' 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 says. "We felt so nostalgic and sad. A way to gather and warm our hearts and express the sadness and nostalgia was singing. 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 says. "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."
There's also a raging sense of self-pride and, more prominently, a strong feminist tenor, drawn throughout Princesses Nubiennes. Like Lauryn Hill these women embrace both a spirit of independence and the feminine mystique; like Sade (whose "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). "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 Nubiennescelebrates 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.