Not since the Marquis de Lafayette have the French been as welcomed in Washington as Les Nubians were Wednesday night at the 9:30 club. Washington was the first market to embrace the Afropean soul of sisters Celia and Helene Faussart, so it's not surprising that the club was standing-room-only. When Les Nubians quizzed the audience members on their language skills, a good portion indicated they spoke French, the language that the sisters sing most of their material in. The rest clearly didn't care, happily succumbing to the smooth, silky, jazz- and hip-hop-tinged sounds that have transcended national borders and musical barriers.
The show opened with "Princesse Nubienne," from the Faussarts' debut album, and immediately established the evening's predominant sonic texture--rippling keyboards, brittle electric guitar, loping bass and taut drums that created a shimmering sensuality, further underscored by the sisters' African-style dancing (their mother is from Cameroon). It's a sound reminiscent of Sade, whose "The Sweetest Taboo" was recast as "Tabou," with a slightly harder, funkier edge and some hip-hop currency added via snippets from the Roots' remix of that track.
As the program progressed, Les Nubians alternated between the conscious soul and positivity of "Demain," "Voyager" and "Si Je T'Avais Ecoute" (compassionate counsel to a young girl dealing with abortion) and such romantic mediations as "Embrasse-Moi," "Desolee" and "Sugar Cane." There was also a spirited diaspora medley that embraced funk, soukous, the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti and the jubilant "Soul Makossa" of fellow Cameroonian Manu Dibango, as well as a quick turn in the spotlight for a local poet.
Two problems kept the show from being as triumphant as it might have been. As excellent as the band was--and it showed its mettle in a powerhouse funk-fusion instrumental--it often overwhelmed the Faussarts and simply played too loud. The second problem is that Les Nubians tend to stay locked into one particular groove that wears thin if it's not leavened through variety. They performed 11 songs from their album and too many of them sounded cut from the same cloth.
Happily, Les Nubians went out on a cascade of high notes, ending their show with the invigorating Pan-African vibe of their breakthrough single, "Makeda," followed by a delirious reading of Kool & the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" that turned the full house into a full-throated chorus.
CAPTION: A little French, a little hip-hop. Celia, left, and Helene Faussart of Les Nubians.