Photograph by Peter Graham
Hooked on Francophonics: Célia and Hélène Faussart are spreading the word about 'Afropean' music.
Les Nubians bring soul, spice and African sizzle to Santa Cruz shores this week.
By Curtis Cartier
FRENCH POP has never really "blown up the charts" in America. Most Yankees would be hard-pressed to name three French musicians, much less list their hits. Parisian sisters Hélène and Célia Faussart, however, are doing their part to change that. For the last 11 years, the duo, better known as Les Nubians, have been bringing more and more Americans into the French connection with their genre-bending Africanized soul jazz and their message of racial unity. Santa Cruz Weekly caught up with Célia ahead of the group's Aug. 24 gig at Kuumbwa, and she shared the amour on topics from art, music and politics to her "revolutionary" new album and advantages of singing with a sister.
"We call ourselves 'Afropean' as a way to define ourselves by ourselves," says Célia in a singsong French accent from her hotel in Brooklyn. "We were inspired by so many different kinds of music in Africa: tribal, soul music, jazz, hip-hop. ... The name just seemed to fit. Paris is a great place to bring African music."
Originally from Bordeaux, the Faussart sisters moved in 1985 with their parents to Chad, where they spent most of their childhood and adolescence. A Muslim country, Chad was not as diverse in its music as the surrounding regions, says Celia. But the sisters kept open ears and traveled often, and by the time they moved back to France they had soaked up culture and art from almost every corner of the continent. As one might expect, the experience comes through musically as a melting pot of ethnic styles. There are heavy-handed tribal drums, funky bass lines, Latin guitars and big and bold brass in the dance-friendly tracks. There are also subdued high hats and subtle strings that can give a moody, back-alley jazz club feel to the quieter numbers. Cutting through it all, however, are always the crystalline voices of the two sisters, delicate and powerful, mouthing beautifully indecipherable French words you can't help but pretend to know the meaning of. It's no accident, Célia says, that the two vocalists complement each other so well--in fact, it's in the genes.
"No one in the world can harmonize with me like Hélène. Nobody can be that close to my timbre," says Célia of her older sibling. "You can see all those brother and sister groups always have something very special in their harmony."
For hip-hop connoisseurs, Les Nubians' street cred was cemented back in 2003 when indie rap god Talib Kweli dropped lines on the track "Temperature Rising." Since then, the siblings have stacked their résumés with collaborations courtesy of the Roots, Mary J. Blige and the Black Eyed Peas. Indeed, the group is most often billed as a hip-hop act, though, like most style-blending artists, the sisters do their best to avoid being labeled.
Besides being influenced by the African culture in Africa, Célia says she and her sister have also been greatly influenced by the African culture in their home city of Paris. A massive, and at times rebellious, portion of Paris' population, Africans have left an indelible stamp on the City of Love. In 2005 and 2007, young, predominantly Muslim Africans rioted after clashes with police led to the deaths of youths. The riots highlighted what many saw as a class struggle between poor immigrants and the ruling elite. Célia says this struggle and others make up the lyrical meat of the sisters' upcoming album, Nü Revolution.
"The tension [in Paris] is still there. I don't know if it will ever be gone," she says. "Our new album is really about citizenship--world citizenship. There's more politically on it than our other albums, but it's not that different because, you know, it's still us."
When the sisters roll through Santa Cruz, it will be a return visit from their 2003 gig at the Rio Theatre. It was August then as well, but smack dab in the middle of a heat wave, and the singer says she remembers the town from something her infant son said. "I remember it was really hot that day, and when we got to Santa Cruz my baby said, 'Mom, are we in Africa?'" she recalls, laughing. "I told him, 'No, honey, it's still California.'"
Don't worry about the mistake, ladies. The Weekly, for one, knows plenty of folks who wouldn't mind seeing you help Santa Cruz look more like Africa for a night.
LES NUBIANS groove on Monday, Aug. 24, at 7 and 9pm at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320 Cedar St. #2, Santa Cruz. Tickets are $30 advance/$33 at the door, available at www.kuumbwajazz.inticketing.com/events or by calling 831.427.2227.
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