More Than Words: Going Polyglot With Concha Buika And Les Nubians

In the '60s and '70s danceable jazz-pop in foreign languages made American radio more exciting: Jorge Ben's "Mas Que Nada" charted when recorded by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66; it was followed by Miriam Makeba's remake of "Pata Pata" in 1967, Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" when covered by Santana in 1970, and Manu Dibango's irresistible "Soul Makossa" in 1972. Something about each single's arrangements, rhythms, and vocals allowed these crossover miracles to seduce stateside listeners who only understand English.

Don't be too surprised if it happens again with Spanish singer Concha Buika and French high-concept hip-hoppers Les Nubians; they seem uniquely positioned to win America's love, even though Buika normally sings in Spanish while Hélène and Célia Faussart record mostly in French.

Les Nubians were already famous for cerebral themes and ambitious collaborations, and on Nü Revolution they raise their "Afropean" flag to salute what I like to call the Third African Diaspora, which is being established as we speak by the free, inspired migrations of Afro-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Afro-Europeans born in the last three decades who are linked by family and economic sophistication to more than one continent—and which follows the traumatic dispersion forced by chattel slavery, and the one created after World War II by the need for imported labor to rebuild Europe.

The Faussart sisters—from France, with Jewish and Cameroonian backgrounds—have won awards and attention for offering a new perspective on black femininity. They've written songs aspiring to the dignity and leadership role of the Queen of Sheba; they've covered Sade; they've collaborated with rappers, new-age fusion lords and African poets. They've survived childbirth, major-label snafus, Grammy nods, and the French race riots of 2005. Now they've compiled an album full of ideas and energy built around an imaginative play on the French language that can simultaneously mean "a turnaround," "new dream movement," even "stripped-down revolution."

With uptempo melodies full of shifting time signatures, fragile harmonies, and oddly textured instrumentation, each song on Nü Revolution makes the most of hip-hop intertextuality and modern remix techniques. Into this Chic-meets-Weather Report fever dream, the Faussart sisters strive to drop a little science.

Weaving between languages and tempos, the first few songs push Hélène's reedy vocals above and around Célia's supportive embellishments, sometimes sweetened by acoustic riffs or keyboard pads. On "Liberté" they rally their troops with gentle cries of "I'm ready!" "I've been waiting for you!" "We're together/ Now we can fly to higher places!" You can easily mistake these proclamations for simple declarations of romantic love until a verse equates the election of America's first black President to the fulfillment of Dr. King's most famous dream.

Nevertheless the album doesn't really catch fire until fellow Cameroonian Manu Dibango assists on an unexpected update of Dibango's classic "Soul Makossa." Shifting to a tempo closer to afrobeat than vintage makossa, you hear Dibango himself cheerfully passing his torch to a new generation; they, in turn, supply his song with a subtle critique of racist immigration policies between cheerful rhymes about freedom, equality, brotherhood, diversity,and security.

But it wouldn't be a Faussart production if the two sisters didn't reinvent their feminism along with rethinking the future of immigration law and the modern global citizen. "Femme Polyandre" is seductively oblique in its description of the kind of freedom these Amazons truly desire. It begins like a spoken word piece: "I want a man to pray with/ and a man to blaspheme with/ A man as a souvenir/ and another to forget/ A man I can give myself to/ And a man who will take me..."—but to forestall the presumption that either sister thinks she should get all of this in a single lover they continue in unison for the chorus: "I am the Polyandrous Woman/ I am the Independent woman." And in case you still think they need you to put a ring on it, they continue: "Rebel Woman/ Once captive, Once lucky escaped/ The woman who falls for you/ And gets up again."

Sung with supreme calm and compassion, "Femme Polyandre" is an unapologetic rejection of patrarchy, purdah, exclusivity, and domestic abuse that ends in a promise: "I appear and disappear/ In your bedsheets as I wish."

Concha Buika—otherwise a similarly free-thinking Afropean woman and working mother—might initially appear to differ with Les Nubians on a few of these points. First, she has nothing against marriage; she once got hitched to a man and a woman on the same day. Second, thanks to the traditions of Spain's gypsy population, she grew up learning the interpretive parameters of the buleria, copla and solea themes. Irresistible emotion and epic, star-crossed destiny is the stuff these song forms are made of. So what freedom or successful escape can exist within such deep, narrow reservoirs of feeling? (Think: the tragic opera Carmen.) Yet being able to sing this paradox into cathartic resolution is the reason Buika is perhaps only one album away from giving Adele a run for her money.

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