The recent chart success of French duo Les Nubians' One Step Forward is a heartening rebuke and disturbing indicator of our country's xenophobic culture. Usually, foreign-speaking artists have to sing in English (like Shakira or t.A.T.u.) to succeed in the U.S. at the risk of becoming childlike novelties (like Falco or Nena). We assure ourselves that this has to do with the superiority and lasting influence of our music. If anything, Les Nubians prove musicians around the world look to us for the latest innovations before attempting, with varying degrees of success, to rework those styles in their own distinctive voice.
Les Nubians' two discs -- One Step Forward and the 1998 debut Princesses Nubiennes -- are built on tasteful jazz grooves, a sound that has been floating in the ether for the past three decades and has recently been tagged as "neosoul" (see Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, et al.). But this album has its charms, especially when it ventures into reggae, Afro-Caribbean, and French pop. The opening track features sisters Hélène and Célia Faussart practicing some vocalese over a saxophone melody before smoothing out into the acoustic soul of "Temperature Rising," a mellifluous excursion indicative of Les Nubians' efforts to placate their growing U.S. fan base with English-language cuts. Much better is the cut "El Son Reggae," where the duo sings of a drug dealer over a tangy Afropean beat. The title track sways and shimmies under the lines "Ma joie de vivre, ma joie de vivre/One step forward, two steps backward."
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For sure, Les Nubians is a purely commercial entity with few avant-garde pretensions, making One Step Forward an appealing if predictable disc. But it's almost impossible to imagine what this album would sound like without a strong Yankee influence: It probably wouldn't have an American distributor, or worse, would be marginalized as "world music" (as Princesses Nubiennes initially was). Perhaps the lines between the two have been so blurred that there is little distinguishing them, and the safe yet tentative "neosoul" of One Step Forward is a step in the right direction for both.