With a look that is exotic and a sound that is eclectic, the progressive soul duo Les Nubians (sisters Helene and Celia Faussert) have helped to redefine the parameters of soul music with the melding of Afro-European sensibilities (aptly dubbed Afropean) into a new kind of multi-culturalism.
Their albums Princess Nubiennes and One Step Forward though sung in their native French tongue were two releases that both transcended language (sung predominantly in French) and promoted the idea of trans-culturalism, where worlds meet but don’t collide, they connect and interlace.
With the release of their latest EP Nu-Revolution, (which is a pre-cursor for a full-blown album in spring, 2011) the duo look to continue their mission of stirring up their fans with an undulant mixture of harmonic melodies and atmospheric sound painting.
I talked with Celia (Faussert) during a recent concert layover about the impact of their careers on the soul music community and what they hope to impart to fans with their new EP.
Q: What music influenced you?
A: When we were young, we were influenced by (on our mom’s side) Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Celia Cruz (I was named after her). From our father, it was more classical music and French artists and from our cousin it was Michael Jackson and Prince. We discovered reggae music like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh as well as Soul II Soul (later on).
Q: When did you all decide that you wanted to be singers?
A: We met the late Abbey Lincoln in 1995 or 1996 and at that time, we had started performing and spent time exchanging thoughts and ideas. She talked about being a singer and being dedicated to the craft. After that discussion, we knew we wanted to sing. That’s why on the first album before” Makeda,” we did a short interlude called “Abbeylude,” which included excerpts from our conversation with her.
Q: How did your debut album, Princess Nubiennes come together? How did you get signed to work on the album?
A: We had been performing for awhile. We were doing a capella shows (two voices, a bass and percussion) around town. We got drafted to participate in a compilation called Jazz at St. Germain. We were going to do a cover of “Round Midnight” but when we went to Paris to record the song, the A & R of Virgin at the time (George French) came to the recording and said that we should do a full-length album. We hadn’t been thinking of a record deal at that time, because we were just concentrating on performing. We thought about the proposal and picked some of our compositions that we had been performing for the album. For instance, “Demain” was part of the songs that we were performing a capella at the time.
Q: How did you conceptualize your artistic vision for the album?
A: We were focused on creating something new and not copy anybody. We decided that our music had to have a message and decided on the name Les Nubians (as the group name) because the music was not about Helene and Celia – it was bigger than our personal lives. We wanted to touch the world (humankind) and that’s where the main lines of the album flowed.
We didn’t think our music would be listened to outside of France, because we were singing in French and thought that only French people would understand it. However, we felt that music is a universal language and when the recognition outside of our language happened, it gave us a lot of strength to continue in our music and it was a beautiful acknowledgement.
Q: A lot of people felt that your debut was one of the top albums of the early Neo Soul movement. How proud of that album are you?
A: The album was good for Neo Soul and for Afropean artists, because now we have artists like Nneka and others who are having their voices heard. When we look back at our debut, it opened doors for Neo soul artists and Afropean artists because we were calling our music the “Afropean sound” and talking about African-related subjects.
Q: Princess Nubiennes led to One Step Forward. What was it like putting your sophomore album together?
A: It was a beautiful adventure to again create a new album. For One Step Forward, we wanted to continue the travel into the diaspora and also explore the “afropeanity” of it all. The second album was supposed to be a double CD but it was a little complicated for the record company to do a double CD, so they removed some songs, which we sometimes play during our concerts.
Q: What’s been the biggest change since we last heard from the both of you?
A: In addition to our growth, we lost our mom back in 2006. We are now totally responsibility for ourselves and our families. That’s a lot of responsibility for us and there’s a certain strength and radiance because we don’t have a shield anymore, we are the shield. Our mom was our strength and her legacy is everything in our music. In our youth, she was the one singing around the house and spreading faith around her. She was the one meeting African artists and promoting us to them. She had a strong love for Miriam Makeba and when we met her, she knew our mom. Our mom was our inspiration.
Q: You have a special affinity for Detroit. Why is it so special to you?
A: Detroiters are so soulful and amazing and the city is one of our favorites and right up there with Chicago and New York. There are so many Detroit artists that we love – we love the originalityof their sound.
Q: You worked with some Detroit producers on this album? Tell us who and what that was like?
A: I want our fans to know about Piranha Head. He’s a talented cat who we met in Paris along with Moodyman (Kenny Dixon). The part he did on this album was amazing. It’s precious for us. We’re very happy to bring this music and share it with the people of Detroit. We have been there many times to play with Malik Alston at the Jazz Café and we always jam! We love the Detroit music scene!
Q: Tell me about the new album and what can listeners expect to hear off of it.
A: This album is called Nu-Revolution and it started in Detroit. We started recording the album in Detroit with Piranha Head nearly 2 ½ years ago. It’s inspired by the sign of the times. When we were in Detroit in 2008, we saw presidential candidate (at that time) Barack Obama and this album is about the evolution of the dream which we expanded to mean “revolution” of the dream.
Q: Will “Nu-Revolution” have a similar sound to your first two releases?
A: Yes and no – it is still us, but this album is more up tempo and is about action. Seven years have passed since “One Step Forward” and during that time we have evolved from princesses to queens. We are very excited about this album.
To learn more about Les Nubians, upcoming tours and information about “Nu-Revolution,” visit http://www.lesnubians.com, http://www.lesnubians.org, http://www.myspace.com/lesnubians, http://groups.myspace.com/lesnubiansfans .
Chris Campbell is a journalist who writes on progressive soul music and its impact on popular culture. His latest book is “The Essential Neo Soul 2.0,” the definitive guide to the development of neo soul/progressive soul/post-soul music. Visit www.essentialneosoul.com for further information or email him at email@example.com.