It’s probably rather cliché to start off a CD review with a confession, but bear with me for minute because this one is central to the theme: when this disc arrived in the mail, I almost cried. It wasn’t out of joy or barely containable excitement, nor was it gratitude for having been so fortunate to score this particular assignment; no, this near-breakdown was borne of no such affectation. This particular tragedy came about as a result of reading the accompanying press material and realizing that I was not holding in my hands a CD of new music by Les Nubians, but rather a collection of spoken word material compiled by that group’s Helen Faussart. What, exactly, had I gotten myself into?
Say what you will about recorded poetry, also known as “spoken word” (yes, I’m defiantly refusing to accord it proper noun status), but my particular prejudices against it as an entity run deep and unforgiving. I’ll spare the personal details, but let it suffice to say that many years as a student of music and literature, combined with a concurrent and subsequent career as part-time jazz critic, have given me a condemn-first, listen-later-if-at-all attitude toward the subject. And I know I’m not alone: from the Orensanz Art Center in New York City to the Velvet Lounge in Chicago to the Pillsbury Theater in Minneapolis, I’ve watched fellow audience members cringe in dismay as some self-professed poet ruined a perfectly good musical performance with pretentiously drawn-out spaces between words and amelodic sing-song cadences.
But once I gathered the courage to sit down and spend some time with the record, I realized my gloomy expectations were way off base: not only are cringe-inducing moments few and far between on Echos, Chapter One… it’s [gulp] pretty damn good. Yes, of course, it’s big of me to admit it, but there are some quite remarkable pieces on the CD — enough to make me reconsider the critical baggage I brought to the table in the first place. So enough about me; let’s look at what makes the disc good enough to enact a sea change in my thinking, and perhaps the thinking of all those people who skip the last track on the Roots’ records as well.
The overall success of Echos, Chapter One is due in no small part to Faussart’s clear concept for assembling a cohesive whole out of the poems she recorded over a span of several years after Les Nubians’ first U.S. tour in 1999. With such disparate sources — artists from France, Africa, and the United States are featured in both French and English among the record’s 21 tracks — it must have been an organizational challenge to make them all fit together so seamlessly. But Faussart has music on her side; that is, the music she created to support most of the vocal pieces in her collection. Much like Les Nubians’ two proper releases, the sounds blend electronic and traditional African musical influences into an intelligent pastiche that weaves a connective thread through the myriad of tongues and themes.
Additionally, the disc is split up into four distinct thematic sections — “Motherland”, “Urban City Life”, “Love Stories”, and “Spiritual Human Nature” — that further reinforce its narrative feel; so much so, in fact, that listening to the tracks randomly compromises their effectiveness. Of course, there’s a small degree of marketing going on here as well, in the form of five “new” tracks by Les Nubians themselves, including a live version of “Demain”, a remix of “Embrasse moi”, and a more formal collaboration with John Banzai, one of the spoken word artists who appears elsewhere on the disc. But again, the ease with which these “teaser” tracks combine with the others is additional testament to Faussart’s skill at combining all of the material at her disposal into something that pushes the boundaries of her artistic reputation without alienating her audience.
All of which is to say — and let me remove my foot from my mouth in order to do so more clearly — that I shouldn’t be so hasty to judge a recording by its press release, because Echos, Chapter One is a truly rewarding experience. It’s not without its blemishes — as one or two of the spoken word artists featured still have that uncanny poet’s ability to overstate their cases — but nowhere near the harrowing experience I had initially anticipated. Instead, the result is a courageous experiment by a group refusing to work within the confines of “neo-soul”, “world beat”, or any other inflexible genre tag; and for that alone I look forward to a Chapter Two.