Born in Paris to a Cameroonian mother and a French father, the girls were uprooted when the family left their adopted hometown of Bordeaux in 1985 to spend the next seven years in the West African nation of Chad, where their father, an accountant, volunteered for the Red Cross. The Thirty Years' War saw thousands of Libyan forces occupying Chad, which had been split among religious factions since the '60s. Célia recently told The New York Times that her family was surrounded by heavily armed soldiers and greeted by gruesome scenes almost daily: "We saw dead people in the streets, people coming back from battles with no legs, horrible things."
Following their father's sudden death in 1993, Célia and Hélène began singing for friends and family. As the Nubian Sisters, they started out specializing in a cappella covers of reggae, R&B and traditional African songs. Slowly but surely, the sisters came up with their own sound, an amalgamation of influences ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Sade, from the Fugees to Miriam Makeba. They inched their way onto larger stages -- but not always to positive reviews. Back in 1998, French critics apparently weren't hip to the concept of African chicks fusing hip-hop, jazz and soul, and they panned the ladies' honey-smooth début, Princesses Nubiennes. When the dyspeptic Gauls weren't dismissing the Faussart sisters as misguided freaks, they accused them of inflating reports of their American record sales.
Stateside, however, the response was much more enthusiastic. Princesses became the top-selling French-language release in the U.S. in fifteen years. The single "Makeda," a meditation on the widespread misunderstanding of Africans, received heavy rotation on American R&B radio stations and MTV2; the pair eventually became the first foreign outfit to receive a Soul Train Award for best new R&B/soul group. The women hit the road and toured nonstop through 2000, wrapping up just in time for Célia to give birth to her second child. Hélène's daughter followed in 2001.
Two years passed, and the world didn't hear much from Les Nubians. Meanwhile, the Afropean sound began to tighten its toehold on the French music scene. "We have more and more musical production, where people are really trying to create their sounds," explains Hélène, taking a break from a sound check in Philadelphia. "At one point, urban music in France was mainly hip-hop or Eurodance. The French soul scene is growing bit-a-bit, and the Afropean sound is growing, too."
Although Les Nubians' interest in incorporating elements of roots-oriented R&B now seems almost prescient, the sisters seldom got credit for crafting a unique sound. "People thought that because we are women, we didn't know anything about what we wanted things to sound like," Hélène bristles. "They didn't take us seriously."
The antidote, of course, was clear. "We brought in a woman sound engineer and she was more, how do you say, sympathetique, to our concerns," she explains. "She really understood what we were trying to do with our sound."
That said, the Faussart sisters are usually equal-opportunity employers. As Hélène puts it, "For us, it's not about being black or white or male or female -- it's about being human."
This humanist philosophy imbues the sisters' most recent CD, One Step Forward (Higher Octave/Virgin). Recorded in London, Paris, Cameroon and Jamaica, the album incorporates the sounds of each region, charting the trajectory of a day and a relationship and dabbling in shades of light and dark. According to Hélène, the cosmopolitan quality was intentional: "We were traveling around the world and heard so much beautiful music that we wanted to include it on the record. We wanted to reflect the concerns that most people around the world face every day: staying alive, putting food on the table."
In keeping with this ambition, One Step Forward is the aural equivalent of the Faussarts' passports. The dance-infused hip-hop of "Temperature Rising" (featuring Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli) flirts with the airy Jamaican beats of "El son reggae," then moves on to the flamenco-tinged "Amour à mort." And as the record's day wanes, the subject matter grows darker. In the liner notes, each track is accompanied by an icon depicting the time of day the song represents; for example, "La guerre," a post-9/11 reflection that questions the possibility of peace, is designated high noon; "Brothers & Sisters" takes place at dusk; "Saravah," in which a couple considers their troubled relationship, is set in the dawn hours, signaling a new beginning.
One Step Forward can also be understood as a reflection of the Faussart sisters' personal lives, which are in transition. Since their emergence on the urban French music scene, the women have become mothers, moved to Philadelphia and no longer sing entirely in French.
"Now we have friends who speak English, maybe we wanted to be sometimes a little more understood or sometimes sing in English," Hélène says. "But we love singing in French and definitely find it as a challenge because if we don't do it, what are we going to leave for our kids as a heritage?"
Of course, there's only one true language for Les Nubians. As they sing on "J'veux d' la musique," music aspires to "conjugate in the past and in the present/I, you, we in every tense."
"What's beautiful in music is more than language itself," Hélène says. "Music is carrying everything. Music is about that, about making your feet dance, making your heart and your belly having thrills and making your head having an irie time. All the links connected and bring sometimes a little bit of elevation or nostalgie or thought or touching, maybe, or love.
"We all have the same experience, speak the same language," Hélène concludes. "Humanity."