Hip-Hop à la Mode

Les Nubians bring Fela Kuti's torch, and the griot's touch, on the road.

From the corny music journalism cliché department: Take one part conscious hip-hop, mix generously with a dollop of Fela Kuti-inspired Afro-jump boogie, stir in two hot neo-soul babes who speak French, and serve up steaming platefuls to disenfranchised KFOG listeners. Soup’s on!

But the music of France’s sultry duo Les Nubians does inspire food comparisons. It’s a sensual variety of tastes with ethnic flourishes, all washed down with Coca-Cola, at one point the group’s tour sponsor. Why would the company be interested in two young French women no one has heard of? Good question. It’s probably because the soft-drink giant knows that buying trends are moving toward what American record retailers call World Beat, a blending of electronica and international music that is at worst the ponytailed white man’s Muzak — the new millennium’s answer to New Age — and at best the first time Westerners have truly listened to foreign modes of expression en masse.

While reaching much larger audiences, foreign artists who’ve seen their music embraced by the West (Zakir Hussain, Manu Chao, etc.) have also had to deal with being viewed as some interesting “other” in the music world — new tchotchkes for upper-middle-class Americans with large CD collections. Les Nubians face this dichotomy as well, and letting Coke sponsor their tour was part of it. “Just to let you know,” says Hélène Faussart, who along with her sister and a backup band make up Les Nubians, “when we were young at home, my father would not let us drink Coca-Cola.”

Hélène is speaking from her home in Bordeaux, where she was raised by a Cameroonian mother and a French father. Her English, however, is excellent. “There was no Coca-Cola,” she explains, “because for my father it represented this crazy money power.”

Eventually, Les Nubians decided to take a bit of that power simply because it would allow them to tour the United States. Hélène’s voice drops a bit when she speaks of the compromise, as if she hasn’t yet decided how she feels about it. “I’m not sure that globalization equals Americanization,” she says. “America has always been a land of immigration, and fills their culture with the whole wide world culture — the European with the African with the Indian. So I really believe that globalization will be seeded by all different cultures. It will not be that all the roots will disappear.”

With a strong social consciousness inherited from both parents, as well as childhoods spent alternating between Bordeaux and Chad, the two grew up surrounded by a mélange of cultures — an upbringing sort of like those of American hippie kids who were given finger paints and the instruction: “Do what you feel with them, man.”

The girls gravitated naturally to music. They started performing as teens, singing their songs a cappella not only for the fun of it, but because they couldn’t find any band to back them up. “At that time all we heard was, ‘You don’t know about music, so we don’t want to do music for you,'” Hélène says. “‘But if you want to do the backing vocals for our band, that would be great.'” In other words, they were to be relegated to being the cute chicks swaying to someone else’s music. Instead, they just skipped having a group and sang alone, everything from jazz to gospel to samba to reggae.

Eventually other musicians took notice, and now a full entourage backs up the women’s harmonies. Their stage show is a big production, with the women dressed in African-inspired finery, with creative makeup and flowing movement. “We want to do real shows,” says Helene, “bring the audience into our world in a tribute to Fela.”

Fela Kuti, who died from AIDS in 1997, is probably Africa’s best-known musician, credited with creating Afrobeat. His live shows featured a stage filled with musicians, dancers, and color. He was also outspoken politically. Les Nubians follow Fela’s lead, combining many of the same stage elements, and speaking out about the treatment of African nationals in France. “When I was in Africa, I didn’t imagine it would be like this,” Célia told Rhythm magazine in a 1999 interview. “The image that I had of France was of a country bursting with opportunities. It’s what they taught me at home and in school. Now I think it’s absolutely essential that people in Africa are told the truth, that they don’t have to come to France and be humiliated.”

The humiliations include being exploited by under-the-table employers, struggling to find places to live, and facing plain ol’ racism. “Western countries are no longer these ‘golden states,’ those places full of hope for Africans,” Hélène says. She then relates a story of a 23-year-old Ethiopian man who recently attempted to come to France without papers, only to be sent back by police who allegedly suffocated him with force, leading to the man having a stroke on the plane home. “He was so young,” she says. “That guy only took the plane and tried to come to France because he had hopes. And he died.”

You can’t read a story about Les Nubians without finding comparisons to Sade — comparisons that at first seem only based on the fact that all are attractive black women with smooth music. The similarities are indeed there: a jazz base, a solid and soulful rhythm section, and an island feel. But it’s the purely American art form of hip-hop with which the sisters seem to feel the biggest kinship. “Hip-hop came from America, yes,” Hélène says, “but it is really about urban life. As far as Paris and other great cities in the world that have urban environments, hip-hop caught on almost twenty years ago.”

Hip-hop is a form of storytelling that Hélène views as a return to the African griot. “The griot is someone who delivers the population its background, or they will give you your genealogy, or they will empower you with fictive tales, or they can be really realistic,” she says. “I believe hip-hop is a way to be a griot, because they are chroniclers.”

And Les Nubians also see themselves as chroniclers. They write each album as a story with a beginning and an end, the songs providing a chronology. “We are doing another way of telling stories, which is more about tales and myths and at the same time talking about real stuff,” Hélène says, “but in a sense giving it some space for your imagination to come in.”

The group’s second and latest release, One Step Forward, tells the story of the sisters’ lives, using the metaphor of a day. “The album begins with the rising of the sun, then you have ‘Temperature Rising,'” Hélène says. “Then there are songs that are upbeat, dealing with the sun: energy, action, enlightenment — everything that is under the light. Then the more that you get through the track listing, the more you go to dusk and night. So at ‘Interlude 9’ it’s like 7 p.m., you meet your friends in a cafe for a little drink, then you separate and you go back home. You then deal with what goes with the moon then: eternal, hidden subjects like infidelity, or love, prayer, meditation, feeling alone, maternity — all those feelings which are inner subjects — until the following dawn.”

The tracks are strongest when performed in French, which is most of the time. When the women sing in English, it sounds contrived, like a weak, well, Sade. But when they unleash their native tongue, listeners can get lost in the rhythm and mood. It may be the new Sade. It may even be co-opted by cola companies or ponytailed Berkeleyites. But Hélène doesn’t think her music is misunderstood. “We try to give ourselves as much space and room as we can musically,” she says. “We need to have the doors open and not close them by having restrictions to one style or comparison.”

In short, they think locally and act globally.

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