Helene faussart, Visionary of grammy-Nominated les nubians Talks Influences, Individuality & The Power Of PurposeRead Now
Interview by mai sennaar
Introduction to Interview
My interview with Hélène Faussart, bandleader and half of the Grammy-nominated duo Les Nubians is the most fitting introduction to Mastering the Craft that we could have imagined.
With over twenty years in the industry and an international fanbase, the innovative artistic vision, empowering message and musical talent of Les Nubians (composed of Hélène and her sister Célia) resonates with millions.
Hélène's longevity in the industry is a testament to the power of courage, resilience and the practice of gratitude. It has also resulted from maintaining a clear, authentic vision in the face of naysayers and valuing and nurturing her worldwide audience.
As you’ll learn from our interview, for Hélène, finding success has not been easy. There are lessons to be learned from her exciting, challenging and relatable trajectory.
Part I of our in-depth interview covers Hélène’s influences, upbringing and the importance of having a vision and creed for your artistic work.
Lessons for Artists At a Glance:
What struck us when we first arrived in Chad was actually the vacuity--the absence of music. That’s what made us thirsty for more.
The country was at war at the time so we didn't have TV.
First that was a decision of my Dad, no TV--and when we had TV it was the Cameroonian channel because Chad didn't have any [stations].
We were listening everyday to the music my father had, the very few tapes that we brought with us and the French radio. We also listened to the local radio that was literally playing militant songs and music all day.
My best friend and I would go to the airport twice a week waiting for the flights from France to arrive. I think it was on Tuesdays and Fridays. We would go the airport by 1PM after school and try to meet young people arriving from France.
We would ask them, ‘Do you have any music...do you have any tapes that we can copy?’ And [whatever they shared with us] was super precious. It’s how we kept feeding ourselves with music and also because of the absence--we came to create our own.
It's the time when Célia and I started playing with poetry that we loved--or doing remixes of songs that we knew...literally filling our lives--doing little shows for my Dad. Being creative in our home. Because we didn't have TV [laughs] my Dad was like "be creative!" [laughs]
Mai: He wanted you to entertain. [laughs]
Hélène : Exactly!
Mai: About how old were you when you guys were going to the airport to try to get insight on the musical happenings of the time?
Hélène : Oh, that must have been from [the ages of] 11-15.
Mai: Wow, Ok.
Hélène: Because we had so few tapes, we were listening to them again and again and again. It was Prince, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, and because you listen to it so much, you begin to enter the music.
On some albums of Prince, I can sing all the music lines--the line of the guitar, the line of the bass, the line of the piano--the melodies and harmonies. It literally took over my brain, I got super brainy with this and loved it! So that was Chad.
Mai: What do you think it is about Prince that so many innovative musicians connect to?
Hélène: [sighs] He was a mastermind. When I look at the construction of his songs, of all the influences that he brought together, of this freedom of construction. There were no boundaries, no 'Part A', 'Part B'...
Mai: So it's really about the freedom that he had in the music...
Hélène : Whoo! The freedom was amazing.
Hélène: We also grew up with African music before going to Chad--and African musicians. My Mom was a music lover. My Auntie used to own the first African-American technique hair salon in Paris.
Mai: No way! [laughs]
Hélène: [laughing] Yes, she was the first one doing Jheri Curls, super chemical styles. My mother was the "super natural" lady so she had a store where she was doing cornrows and everything that was natural. So they were totally different. So my cousins and my mother and Aunt are the ones who introduced us to African music.
There was Miriam Makeba, there was Fela--I fell in love with Fela when I was four years old. I wanted to be a dancer for Fela. I said it to my Mom and she said, 'absolutely not!' because there was too much drug use involved. [laughs]. And I remember like you know, having all those vinyls and being totally fascinated by that--the beauty...fascinated by those album covers and again, the [sense of] freedom, you know?
Album artwork by Lemi Ghariokwu
A lot of Cameroonian artists--big stars--like Moni Bilé--stars from the Makossa back in the day--were coming and having their hair done in my Aunt’s salon. So we grew up being surrounded by them--and their music, even the traditional music. My mom and my Auntie are Ewondo and the music of the Ewondo people is Bikutsi.
Bikutsi is a very singular music and we grew up in that and the language. We already had all this precedent when we arrived in Chad--so you can imagine when we arrived in Chad how we were impacted by the vacuity!
I remember [in Chad]...the singing of the Muezzin in the morning that was bliss. That was for me the most beautiful entertainment we could have in Chad. It was really a blessing every time, to listen to this.
We grew up in Chad with our French father so we were never far from the culture--the culture [French culture] was home. We were very much involved: going to our 14th of July at the French Embassy [French National Day]. Dad was very much involved with his country and helped, for example, all the former [Chadian] soldiers from the second World War* who were not receiving any pensions. So he literally beat the whole jungle for it to happen--so that these amazing men could be retributed for their war efforts.
*It is estimated that over one million African soldiers fought during WWII.
Mai: Was he able to pull it off?
Hélène: Yes, he did. He had amazing values and was teaching us, I would say, the sane and safe part of French culture. We were not in touch with the other side. When we arrived and discovered the other side, we were shocked. Dad was someone who was very cultured, [we were wondering]-- how come these people are not? [laughs]. Why are they so ignorant? They have everything: TV, radio, and they don't know anything about Africa!
We were asked questions like, were you living a tree, were you wearing shoes, I know that you were probably drinking dirty water...so it took me a year to get readapted to France when I returned. I was 15. And again music, was a big part of that, it was my sanctuary.
Suddenly I had the chance to go music stores and discover more. So I completed my Prince collection, I ventured into classical music and also pop. Suddenly music was my safe place. Yeah. I was not totally in tune with my peers. And I was missing Africa....yeah.
Mai: So where do you call home? Or do you have more a global perspective on what home is?
Hélène: I think that everywhere is my home because parts of me grew up in all those places. Sometimes in pain, sometimes in bliss and I truly believe that spiritually, they are all equally important.
My first musical experience started in Paris, being a radio DJ...I was visiting my Dad who stayed in Chad and I was the provider of good music for the dance floor DJs.
I got very involved in music and discovered when I got back to France that art and music and dance were good platforms to talk about my culture, to talk about Africa--to relate to others--through the vibration and music. Art was also a platform to explain that we Africans are all related. So yeah it started there.
Mai: How did you feel when you discovered how many millions of people would connect to your music? Were you surprised?
Hélène: We couldn’t believe it. Seriously, we couldn't believe it.
Because when we did the first album, we really wanted to impact France. It was a political statement, it was sign of rebellion, it was also a sign of unity. We wanted to bring a form of consciousness to our country. We were very much involved with the Hip Hop movement at that time and we were conscious artists. We were like, there is no innovative, woman-driven music that speaks to us. There were no black female pop artists on the radio. We'd hear world music but there was nothing really in between. We wanted to fill this gap. And we called our band Les Nubians for that reason.
And France was like "...whomp, whomp". [both laugh]
Hélène: They loved the first single. But the first single was the most poppish track of the album and I was so crushed when they chose that. I was like, 'Oh my God! No!'
Mai: Which track was it?
Hélène: It was Les Portes du Souvenir. I loved the song, but for me it was not the first single. [France] loved the song as well, [but the song was not addressing any of the themes that Les Nubians was really [passionate] about. When we started doing promotion for the album in France, we [eventually] did fewer and fewer press outlets, because they were not interested in the message. And we were singing in French! We were so pissed. They would ask us in interviews, 'Les Nubians'--what's with that name--are you part of the Black Panthers?'
Hélène: Suddenly we were talking about Noir. And French people don't like to hear this word. They would actually, at that time, refer to the music that we were doing as "black music" (in English)--so they have issues in using the word Noir in French.
Mai: So all of these descendants from francophone West Africa who call France home, were they coming your shows?
Hélène: At the beginning in France, very few. We heard things from the community like, 'oh my God', they're going to crush you.' 'why did you choose such a name?' 'it brings back the idea of black pride and all of this, they won't like it.' Then from the ladies we heard...why don't you do something different with...
Together: Your hair...[both laugh]
Mai: Always the hair.
Hélène: Yeah. All the stylists wanted to straighten our hair and stuff like that. So it was not easy with the [African]--community either. They were not the first ones to embrace us. They were afraid.
Mai: Where did you first get the warmest reception?
Hélène: First it came from our urban, youth crowd. They were like 'wow, ok, that speaks to us, we know the girls, we like this music.' So they showed us love, immediately.
Mai: So this was like a mixed crowd?
Mai: Where did you find the courage to not need permission to express your aesthetic and art in the way that you chose? And also have longevity without going the commercial route?
Hélène: I don't know where we found the courage. I think that at the time, when I reflect on it now....I realize that, I was stubborn, I was really stubborn. I studied law also when I went to college before Les Nubians. From the beginning I was very much involved and concerned with all the legal aspects of what we were doing and how we were doing it. But also I have to say that we were extremely lucky to have such an amazing A&R--Thierry Planelle. This man allowed us to do the music we wanted to do on the first album. On the second album is where we clashed with the record company.
On the first album I remember we were sending him the demos and he would send back comments. He was like ‘could you change this on this song?’ 'The rhythm is too complicated, people won't understand...Oh you should do a song with this folk artist.’ And month after month, I was sending back the very same tracks [laughs].
Like, nope were not changing anything, nope. I remember the day when we went for a meeting in Paris and he was like ‘Hmm, you're very stubborn, huh? But I understand now where you want to go and I will respect this.' And he found us the right producers and he asked us for a wish list of the musicians that we wanted to work with.
At that time, again, I had my ears on the music and I knew how musicians themselves were playing. He realized that all of our choices were grounded and he respected this. To find this beautiful match in the industry is not easy. Someone who will finally trust you and allow you to do what you want.
We did our very first photoshoot in London. The record company was like this is for the cover of the album. And I was like nope, absolutely not, no, no, no. And our A&R again supported our choices. You know, so It starts there.
It starts with the team and someone who is standing for you, your manager.
Then for the second album it became complicated. Suddenly, yes, they are trying to maximize their investment. But at that time, again, those record companies were developing artists and investing money to develop talent, which is not true today. So on the second album suddenly we were asked to do things their way and it became a little complicated. We lost our record deal. We had to separate. And it cost us lots of energy doing this...years of not being able to do anything because we had like an exclusive artist contract. So during all the time where we had our legal battle, we were not able to record anything.
The only thing that became important, was for us to continue our music was performing, and we never stopped touring and playing. And that's the key. To me, that's what kept us in the business for now 20 years - 25 years if we include the years before - but yeah the stage and performing until we became independent and we could finally release new material. But performing is the key.
We were like wow, we are going to record another album eventually, but we are stage artists, we are performers, and what we love is to be on stage.
Mai: So when you went to get bookings and you were in the midst of this legal battle, was it challenging or were you handling your own bookings, how did that go?
Hélène: It was David and Goliath, yes. You are literally battling a giant because you are battling the industry. I remember my lawyer saying "Hélène, if we go to war, if you don't accept the settlement that they are giving us now, then [you] will be blacklisted."
Hélène: It took several lawyers because the level of collusion sometimes of certain lawyers with the industry.
I remember my Mom asking me one day "how you are doing?" and I just remember telling her, ‘I'm done. This is wearing on me, it's horrible.’ And she was like, "well, my daughter, I actually believe God is sending you this in your life right now so you learn faster because he needs you for bigger things later." And that carried me. I was in the process of learning, this is an experience, this is school. I am schooling myself about this business. And yes, so performing, became everything.
(END OF PART 1)
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