Artist to Artist: Les Nubians – Revolutionary Sisters of Soul

True story. In autumn 1998, just days after driving cross-country from Dallas to kick-start my entertainment biz career in L.A., I wandered into the Virgin Megastore in Burbank. Strolling somewhat aimlessly up and down the endless aisles of music, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular—just waiting for something to jump out at me. This is a practice I’ve employed for years, especially when in the throes of writers’ block. For some reason, browsing through CDs and stumbling upon random words and phrases in the form of album and/or song titles helps reinvigorate the creative juices and get them flowing more freely so I can return to my work. And so that afternoon, while looking for nothing in particular but waiting for something to jump out and grab me, I came upon Princesses Nubiennes, the debut release by the French-speaking sister duo Les Nubians. The CD caught my attention for multiple reasons, the first being that the title was in French. Having minored in French and studied in Paris in college, I was beyond excited to find new French-language music to add to my collection. But it was the “Nubians” part that truly sparked my desire to further explore; the cover art featured a scarab beetle and two beautiful Black women, hand in hand, who seemed to be walking straight toward me. Who were these women, and what would their music bring?

The women, of course, are Célia and Hélène Faussart, Paris-born chanteuses whose brilliant blending of R&B, soul, hip hop, and African musical elements catapulted Les Nubians into the stratosphere on the strength of their first single, “Makeda”. On the heels of Princesses Nubiennes’ stunning success—which earned them a Grammy nomination, two NAACP Image Award nods, and culminated in the group taking home a Soul Train Lady of Soul Award for Best New Artist Group or Duo in 1999—Les Nubians came strong with their sophomore effort, One Step Forward, in 2003. In 2005 they released a spoken word project, Echoes, featuring various artists delivering poetry and prose over tight grooves.

With their brand new release, Nü Revolution, Les Nubians takes their unique brand of soul-filled world music to the next level. For this installation of the SoulTrain.com Artist to Artist series, we spoke to Les Nubians about the new project, their extraordinary musical journey thus far, and how, through song, they have truly become cityoennes mondiales.

SoulTrain.com: Your music defies genre, because each of your songs contain so many diverse elements. How did you create this hybrid signature sound?

Hélène: It’s really the music—the way we hear it, feel it, and sing it. It comes from our musical heritage, growing up between Europe and Africa. And we grew up listening to so many different kinds of music. Our music expresses that blend; we do it quite naturally.

Célia: For us it’s very important to create music freely, to create music that comes through our heart and soul. It can be reggae, bassa nova, and vocal improvisation. We listen to so many kinds of music and we want people to experience the diversity of our identity as Black people. We like to work with other artists, to bring other artists into genres they’re not used to and also challenge ourselves to do the same. It’s an adventure.

SoulTrain.com: Your native language is French, and on each of your albums you sing in English as well. Your debut single “Makeda” (Princesses Nubiennes) is entirely in French. When you first began performing before American English-speaking audiences, did you sense any disconnect because of the language barriers?

Hélène: No, because when we recorded the first album we wanted to do it in French—it’s the language of the heart. We now have more confidence singing in English because of the amazing relationship we’ve developed with English-speaking audiences over all these years. It’s easy to sing a different language and hide behind those words, but you have to feel it. What is in English {on our albums} came naturally in English, and what came in French came naturally in French.

Célia: We have a beautiful relationship with our American audience, who doesn’t necessarily understand everything we say. And it doesn’t seem to bother them. We do the same—if you hear us singing a Michael Jackson song you will laugh, because we’re picking out syllables and it doesn’t always make sense. Music is its own language.

SoulTrain.com: Tell us about some of your musical influences. What kinds of music did you grow up listening to?

Nü Revolution - Les Nubians
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Hélène: We listened to artists like Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, and Louis Armstrong. From our cousins and younger relatives, we got into Prince, James Brown, Kool and the Gang. We grew up listening to a lot of African American music that came through Europe. From our father’s French side we got Edith Piaf, and also Celia Cruz and different kinds of Caribbean music. Our mother used to sing African spiritual music to us.

SoulTrain.com: On One Step Forward, you collaborated with Talib Kweli for the song “Temperature Rising”. On Nü Revolution you’ve added an impressive arsenal of guest artists, including Eric Roberson, as well as artists who may not be as familiar to American audiences like Freshly Ground (from South Africa) and MC Blitz (who is Ghanaian-American). How did these creative partnerships come to be?

Hélène: They come from chance encounters, a “natural magnet effect”. We listened to Eric Roberson a lot and love his song writing and his voice and his independent career. We connected with him in Paris, and we were able to work together. We met Blitz the Ambassador in NYC—he’s from Ghana but based in Brooklyn—and he represents this revival of hip-hop. He’s got an amazing flow, and his message is similar to what we stand for.

SoulTrain.com: A common theme that runs through each of your albums is this undeniable sense of pride in your African heritage. Is this something you intentionally set out to do with your music?

Hélène: Yes! Our music is rooted in Africa and we believe it is a way to link generations and pass skills, knowledge, history, and a sense of lineage. We’re not coming from “nowhere”—we have our roots here. It is very important to write down and pass along our stories for the preservation of our history.

Célia: Our group name is “Les Nubians” and it’s deeply rooted in African pride. We link the Diaspora and show that it and the Continent are one. When you know more about who you are and you carry it with pride and openness, you know where you’re going and can interact with other communities without prejudice.

To find out when Les Nubians will be bringing their global grooves to your city and to learn more about Nü Revolution, check out www.lesnubians.com. You can also find Les Nubians on Facebook at Facebook.com/lesnubians and on Twitter, @lesnubians.

Check out the ladies’ video for the single “Afrodance.”

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–Rhonda Nicole

Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter from Dallas, TX whose EP Nuda Veritas is available on CDBaby and iTunes. Follow her on Facebook at Facebook.com/rhondanicolemusic and on Twitter, @wildhoneyrock.

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