American pop radio and French pop singers usually don't get mentioned in the same breath, and certainly not when the latter insist on singing in French.
Sure, there was Soeur Sourire, the Singing Nun, with the chart-topping "Dominique" in 1963, and . . .
Actually, that's it, unless you count the chant in Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa," a No. 35 hit in 1973.
Which makes American radio's embrace of Les Nubians something of a miracle. The Paris-based Afropean duo, consisting of sisters Helene and Celia Faussart, has somehow managed to infiltrate urban airwaves. In September 1998, Washington's WHUR became the first American station to air their single "Makeda."
"I wasn't thinking in terms of the French vocals but the beat, the rhythm, the Afrocentric nature of the song," says WHUR Program Director Hector Hannibal. "That's what led us to it, as well as the immediate listener response. When a record is still spinning and the phones are already ringing, that's a good sign that you've got something going there."
The sultry, sinewy "Makeda"; "Tabou," a Gallic recasting of Sade's 1985 hit "The Sweetest Taboo"; and the current single, "Demain," have clearly clearly transcended language barriers. Les Nubians' debut album, "Princesses Nubiennes," on which only one of 15 tracks is sung in English, is closing in on sales of 300,000 in the United States. And a few weeks ago, Les Nubians, who perform tonight at the 9:30 club, won the Soul Train Lady of Soul Award for best new R&B/soul or rap group--the first foreign act to do so.
Pretty good for a group whose original target market was France, Belgium, Canada and the French-speaking nations of Africa, and whose original goal was to create a French corollary to the smooth Brit-soul sound of Sade, Soul II Soul and Des'ree.
Call it Nouveau Soul.
"When we did this album, we really wanted to do something different in France and for the French-speaking countries," says 20-year-old Celia. "We were so bored with what we were listening to on the radio. We didn't want to copy anybody, we wanted to do our own music with all the influences we had--free-minded music.
"But we never thought it would break in America."
"We dreamt of it," admits Helene, 24.
In French, of course.
Ironically, "Princesses Nubiennes" didn't sell particularly well in France when it was released in early 1998. Now, thanks to its surprise American success, it's begun to sell briskly at home and the French media are playing Jean-come-lately to one of the more intriguing pop music stories in years.
Daughters of a French father and Cameroonian mother, the Faussarts were born in Paris and grew up in a cosmopolitan atmosphere. In the early '90s, though, the family spent a couple of years in Chad and the sisters reconnected with traditions and values blurred by the cultural assimilation of Paris. They also embraced the music of West Africa as an auxiliary to the mostly English and American pop that dominates European airwaves.
When they returned--Celia was 15, Helene 19--it was to Sala, a small town near Bordeaux in southwest France.
"When we arrived from Chad, I started singing a lot because I was very melancholy and sad," says Celia. Part of that could be attributed to a distressing provincial ignorance as schoolmates asked her such racially and ethnically charged questions as " 'Is it hard to wear shoes?' or 'Do you drink dirty water in Africa?' "
"I was so disappointed and felt so lonely that I started singing more," Celia recalls, adding that her sister, by now living on her own, provided her with tapes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Natalie Cole and others, "so I started singing jazz."
Five years ago, their father died and Celia went to live with Helene--and for the first time, their voices joined in song. "It's like we needed it," she says. "It was for us a good way to reconnect . . . to revivre ourselves."
The distance traveled since their voices first intertwined was not without roadblocks. France has no R&B history. There have been R&B singers, but they were usually doing American R&B in French, in much the same way that French rockers, rappers and jazz musicians tended to emulate their American inspirations.
The Faussarts' chief models, as it happened, were already once removed--the smooth Brit-soul sounds of Des'ree, Omar, Soul II Soul, Jhalesa and, particularly, Sade.
"All those people really influenced us in their way of being free," says Helene. "It's obvious that they were inspired by American music, but they were doing their own thing, with their own identity.
"But we didn't want to just copy English soul in French," she adds. "We wanted to do our own thing in French and have it sound good. What is wonderful about the American success is that people who like this kind of music don't need to understand the lyrics--they recognize our music as music, they feel the music. That's the best recognition you can have."
Still, the Faussarts had great difficulty enlisting support from fellow musicians for their particular vision.
"From the beginning when we decided to sing together, we wanted to sing with a band," says Celia. "But no musicians trusted us. It was: 'You're too young. . . . You don't have any experience. . . . You didn't go to music school. . . . You don't know anything about music so we won't play with you!'
"So we had to perform a cappella." Mostly covers at first--which is where they began to hone their bilingual skills.
Concurrently, they formed a cultural collective called Les Nouveaux Griots that, says Helene, "sought to make people discover the African diaspora by the gastronomie, by the music, by the art, by the literature and spoken word. Les Nubians are an extension of Les Nouveaux Griots--a way of talking about our Afropean identity, the promotion of the European and the African cultures in a mixed society."
The Faussarts began performing a cappella variations--two voices alone, two voices with a beat box, two voices with a percussionist and then with a bass player--"until we had a record deal and the ability to make our music and our dreams come true," Helene explains. "All the music you're listening to, we had in our head and heart for all these years. Now we have the authority to say to musicians, 'Come and play our music because it's worth it.' "
There was still resistance in France--"a lot of people discouraged us, saying, 'Your music is nothing' "--but the Faussarts found a supportive climate across the channel in England, where they recorded with producer Lee Hamblin (Chante Moore, Jhalesa, Ronny Jordan) at the Soul II Soul studio.
"In England, it was a very different reaction: 'Wow, this is fresh,' " Celia recalls.
It's those modern grooves and the album's hip-hop spirit--though the sisters don't rap at all--that allowed Les Nubians to break through stateside before they were able to do so at home. Tom Bracamontes, promotions director for Virgin/Higher Octave, credits young radio station deejays for encouraging their program directors to get past the language issue and get into the groove.
The timing was auspicious as well, with the rise of retro-soul via Erykah Badu, Maxwell and Lauryn Hill, the cyclical return of conscious hip-hop, and the absence of anything new from Sade, who hasn't released an album since 1992.
In the last year, says Bracamontes, "there was nothing fresh happening in the urban marketplace, particularly on Urban Adult Contemporary stations, which are heavily skewed to a female listenership. And with Les Nubians, you had all the ingredients that would appeal to an African American female listenership--they sounded like a marriage between Sade and Erykah Badu, and it just happened to be in French, the most romantic language in the world."
After WHUR jumped on "Makeda," so did stations in New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago--regional breakouts that then swayed programmers nationwide. When the Faussarts visited radio stations on promotions, deejays told them that whenever they played "Makeda," "there were instant calls, people saying, 'I don't know what they're talking about--we don't understand a word--but I love this Spanish band! Play it again!' "
Les Nubians also received tremendous support from the Box and from BET, neither known for playing French-language videos. When the Faussarts were growing up listening to English-language records, they did so without understanding a word, so this is sweet payback, and they're not about to abandon French.
"We are more confident in French," says Helene. "Because we used to do covers in English, we could have done a whole album in English. A lot of people say French doesn't groove, French doesn't suit modern music. Okay, that will be our challenge: to say things in French and make it sound great."
Perhaps not yet trusting themselves, Les Nubians did go back and record an English version of "Makeda," only to find it ignored by programmers who clearly preferred the French version.
"Nobody wanted Les Nubians in English," Celia says proudly. "For us it's proof that music has no boundaries, that it's an international language."
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8156.)
For non-French speakers, translations for the songs on "Princesses Nubiennes" can be found at "lesnubians.com."
CAPTION: Les Nubians Helene, right, and Celia Faussart: "We didn't want to just copy English soul in French," says Helene. "We wanted to do our own thing in French and have it sound good."
CAPTION: Les Nubians have broken the language barrier with their French pop album.