Afro-pop? French hip-hop? Jazz? World beat? Les Nubians defies description.
I first encountered the musically talented sister act back in 1999, when their single “Makeda” received airplay from urban adult contemporary stations. Instantly I became captivated by its infectious beat, sultry French lyrics, and its unique combination of jazz and hip hop (complete with old school record scratching). Subsequently, I purchased their album, Princesses Nubiennes, and it has been a favorite of mine ever since.
Born in France, sisters Helene and Celia Faussart moved with their parents to the African country of Chad. Subsequently, the family returned to France, where the teenage women seriously pursued musical careers. Citing influences as vast as Ella Fitzgerald, the Fugees, and Miriam Makeba, the duo released their debut, the aforementioned Princesses Nubiennes, in parts of Europe in 1998. The album surfaced in America in 1999, and “Makeda” propelled the sisters to moderate success. In fact, according to All Music and Les Nubians's MySpace page, their album became the most successful French-language album in recent history. While Les Nubians has continued to record overseas, their American success faded after that first album. Over a decade later, however, their debut still stands out with its integration of world sounds, jazz, and hip hop.
Highlights include “Désolée,” an eight-minute opus ranging from R&B to Indian which kicks off with a tabla-dominated beat (a type of Indian drum). The clever “Tabou” builds on Sade's “Sweetest Taboo” by adding saxophone, a stronger bass-laden drum pattern, and even a French rap break. While the Faussart sisters sing the majority of the lyrics in French, they harmonize in perfect English on the charming “Sugar Cane.” A popping bass punctuates "Sourire," combined with the sisters' lovely harmonies. While "Makeda" clearly was a killer single, the group should have capitalized on its success by releasing "Embrasse-Moi" as the follow-up. A perfect blend of hip-hop, jazz, and R&B, the song could have received airplay on urban contemporary stations. They did release "Les Portes Du Souvenir," a slow drum and bass-driven tune that nicely showcases their complementary vocals.
Other album tracks show the sisters' interest in various genres. "Voyager" resembles folk with its acoustic guitar; "Demain," a jazzy song with an organ and catchy bass line. The title track highlights Les Nubians' rich vocals, made sultry by singing in French.
Throughout the album, Les Nubians intersperses the songs with short interludes featuring them crooning African melodies. In a nod toward their jazz roots, the group even includes a sample of Abbey Lincoln discussing her music. "The best thing to be is a singer," she said, adding that Africa is in her "hair, in my feet, and in my body." Listed on the album tracks as "Abbeylude," this snippet perfectly summarizes Les Nubians' sound: layering beautiful vocals over a modern beat, never neglecting their heritage.
Over the years, Princesses Nubiennes is an album I play frequently. Its world beats and jazz-influenced sounds continue to captivate, and have aged quite well. Even if you do not speak French, the songs and the Faussarts' beautiful voices will hold your interest. Despite any language barriers, Les Nubians prove that music is indeed a universal language. Do not pass up this hidden gem.