LES NUBIANS / “Autour de Minuit”
“Round Midnight” is a Thelonious Monk jazz classic, so classic they named a movie after it. The Les Nubian's cover of “Round Midnight” is taken from Saint Germain Des Pres Revisite, a compilation of contemporary interpretations of classic jazz popular on the Paris scene. As soon as I heard it something clicked for me. It perfectly encapsulates the essence of Les Nubians.
The duo is cool, chic and classy with a touch of “je ne sais qua”—that certain something which moves a person or thing beyond attractive into the aura of fascinating, or more precisely, into the magic terrain of the enchanting.
A while back (October 16, 2005 and June 18, 2006) BoL featured Les Nubians remakes of Sade’s “Sweetest Taboo” and Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.” Les Nubians are great interpreters, wonderful at re-casting what we already know into something that is simultaneously familiar and different—familiar enough to be comfortable, different enough to gain our attention in a world awash with sound-a-likes. BTW, in the jukebox is "Tabou," another Les Nubians version of Sade's song.
Initially I thought of Les Nubians as a fashion statement, gorgeous albeit mainly more about how they looked than how they sounded, almost as if the music were an afterthought. But if I had done some forethought I would have recognized that the fault lay not in any deficiency in their sound but rather in my falling victim to looking without listening: a failure common among we men when responding to women especially when we find the women physically attractive.
Plus, not only am I not conversant in French, I don’t much like the sound of the language. I’m biased twice over and that bias limits me; but now that I am conscious of this negative bias, I fight against it and listen a second or third time where before I barely listened at all.
What I have found is that Les Nubians are serious sisters with a wider repertoire than most of their peers, a willingness to put forward their politics in ways that more famous entertainers never even entertain. They may sound quite cool and relaxed but they are intense lionesses, they go for the jugular, fearless in confronting both enemy and hunting for a wide variety of food (i.e. they've jumped on some tough classics).
I mean they tackle both straight-up political issues—racism, AIDS, sexism—as well as range broadly in terms of their musical tastes. Who else has put out a hard-ass album featuring spoken word artists (Les Nubians Presents: Echos Chapter One: Nubian Voyager)? What other young female group records both hip-hop and classic jazz, is both bilingual and Afrocentric? In one important sense they are totally cutting edge even though there is an overall relaxing vibe in their sound.
It is easy to underestimate the cool, to think soft lacks substance. We are led to think: they are sexy so they must be senseless. As if beauty automatically means no brains, as if attractiveness automatically means they are there simply for the pleasure of consumption.
Rather than a commercial contrivance, I think they are centered in the reality of who they are; they are at peace with being themselves even as they recognize we are at war with systems of oppression. Listen to “I Disagree” from their Echos album. It is sung in English. Listen closely to the lyrics. Don’t just sway to the flute or rock to the mid-tempo, soft conga rhythms. They are saying “Babylon tries to drive you crazy.” They are not shouting or ranting but they are clearly declaiming “I disagree” with the system. No way you can confuse Les Nubians insisting “things must change” with a fashion statement. “Don’t stay blind. Take a step in the way of consciousness… Just disagree.”
Now that I have listened more closely, even if I didn’t like this music in terms of my personal taste, I would be all over waving the flag for this music out of active solidarity. Why? Well, here is the key to Les Nubians: They are both chic and conscious, both beautiful and self-affirming of their own blackness, their own femininity, their own humanness. Their beauty is not make-up. Their consciousness is not marketing.
One more thing: don’t underestimate how hard it is to confront the prejudices, biases and difficulties one encounters in trying to be forward within the backward music industry. It is extremely hard to remain positive when slackness goes platinum. It is extremely hard for a woman to remain culturally beautiful when the hootchie is held up as the height of the feminine. It is no simple statement to withstand the demands to speak English-only when English has become the de facto lingua franca of global commerce. Particularly for women, it is extremely difficult to resist the push to present your stage self as uniquely exotic when the reality is that you are but one of millions who look and live like you.
Just shut up and shake that thing is the demand of the system; these sisters be refusing to dumb down, refusing to shut up and simple-ass-ly shake their derriers.
Before each and every one of our readers/listeners I beg forgiveness for being so blind that I refused to listen to what was clearly chanted. Hence forth I will listen before I speak or dismiss deep beauty as merely a fashion statement. I know that it is not solely my fault. I know that sexy sirens is how Les Nubians was presented in much of the mainstream media but I have my own ears. I have a responsibility to both listen and look before leaping to a false conclusion.
It is November. Autumn in New Orleans. We do not have fall; mostly the leaves stay on the trees. But second only to spring this is the time of beautiful weather in the Crescent City. Air conditioners are shut off. The heat is not turned on. The sunny days are soft, neither harshly hot nor a glaring light requiring sunglasses. Though darkness falls early, the evenings are lovely.
Les Nubians sound like autumn in New Orleans, a time when “pleasant” is a supreme complement and not a “comme ci, comme ca” wishy-washy statement. Les Nubians are the sound of relaxed blackness.
I wish the sisters well. Les Nubians, you are bold, black and beautiful women.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
I was sitting here laughing to myself about how I've already done posts about Les Nubians (TWICE!) and both times Kalamu responded cooly, like, "Yeah, they're alright. I appreciate what they're trying to do but I'm not really feeling them." Then comes today's 180-degree about-face. So yeah, I was laughing about it, but then I clicked the link in Kalamu's post and read what I wrote about the sisters the first time. What did I say? I talked about how I initially ignored them and underrated them and assumed they were too soft and sappy for me based wholly on a superficial appraisal of some of the people I saw buying their CD.
After thinking about it, I don't know what's sadder: one music lover ignoring a good group because he thinks they're too pretty to be any good or another one ignoring the same group because he considers their fans too 'frilly' or 'girly' looking. But that's one of the reasons we do BoL: to encourage others to buy good music no matter what the package or the image. In the case of Les Nubians, these sisters may be blessed (or is that cursed?) with marketable looks, but they have the talent, substance and consistency to back it up. Check 'em out, y'all.
—Mtume ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, November 11th, 2007 at 2:43 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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