The recent chart success of French duo Les Nubians' One Step Forward is both a heartening rebuke and a disturbing indicator of our country's xenophobic culture. Usually foreign-speaking artists have to learn to sing in English (like Shakira or T.A.T.U.) to succeed on the U.S. pop charts at the risk of being reduced to childlike novelties (Falco or Nena, anyone?), a sharp contrast to the open-mindedness of other countries that regularly send American artists up the charts. We assure ourselves that this has to do with the superiority and lasting influence of our music. If anything Les Nubians are proof that musicians around the world look to us for the latest innovations before attempting, with varying degrees of success, to rework those styles in their own distinctive voice.
Les Nubians' two discs -- One Step Forward and the 1998 debut Princesses Nubiennes -- are built on tastefully jazzy grooves, a sound that has been floating in the ether for the past three decades and has recently been tagged as the mark of "neosoul" (see Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, et al.). But the album has its charms, especially when it ventures into reggae, Afro-Caribbean, and French pop. The opening track features sisters Hélène and Célia Faussart practicing some vocalese over a breezy saxophone melody before smoothing out into the acoustic soul of "Temperature Rising," a mellifluous excursion indicative of Les Nubians' efforts to placate their growing U.S. fan base with English-language cuts. Much better is the cut "El Son Reggae," where the duo sing the story of a drug dealer over a tangy Afropean beat. Then there's the title track that sways and shimmies under the lines "Ma joie de vivre, ma joie de vivre/One step forward, two steps backward."
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For sure Les Nubians is a purely commercial entity with few avant-garde pretensions, making One Step Forward a highly appealing if predictable disc. But it's almost impossible to imagine what this album would sound like without a strong Yankee influence: It probably wouldn't have an American distributor, or worse, would be marginalized as "world music" (as Princesses Nubiennes initially was). Perhaps the lines between the two have been so blurred that there is little distinguishing them and the safe yet tentative "neosoul" of One Step Forward is a step in the right direction for both. -- Mosi Reeves