Les Négresses Vertes
Les Négresses Vertes
A popular export of France, Les Négresses Vertes has become one of the few rock groups to achieve international success singing in a language other than English, selling millions of records worldwide. With their cabaret-like performances and mix of punk, folk, reggae, ska, funk, flamenco, Algerian rai, Latin, and more, a concoction dubbed “urban folk music,” Les Négresses Vertes have attracted a broad fan base by their sound alone. “Imagine Edith Piaf jamming with the Pogues and playing some sort of Latin music, not taking themselves seriously and just having lots of fun,” commented music producer Laurent Marceau in an interview for the World. “Well, that’s Les Négresses Vertes really.”
Considering the group members’ diverse ethnic backgrounds, Les Négresses Vertes’ multicultural approach to music seems quite natural. But while the group’s name translates to the phrase “green black women,” there is actually only one woman in the band, and although her Gypsy heritage gives her a dark complexion, none of the members are black. Rather, the members trace their roots to varied Algerian, Spanish, Gypsy, and French parentage. According to singer and accordionist Matthias Canavase, the name came from an abuse hurled at the band at one of their first concerts. “Basically it was an insult because we were in a very popular ball playing waltz and tangos in musette style, and we were dancing on it, we were doing black dance and some other things,” he recalled to Morning Edition host Bob Edwards. However, Canavase continued,” the contradiction was too much for the lumberjack and butchers of the countryside and they treated our little family as négresses vertes because we were doing black dance in the countryside and folkloric music, but I don’t want people from the States or anywhere else to take it as a bad joke. I mean, it’s really—it’s difficult to translate. Because we are in France, for us it’s quite humorous and sarcastic.”
Formed in 1987, Les Négresses Vertes arose from the alternative music scene in Paris, meeting one another on street corners in typically working-class, immigrant areas like Bastille and Les Halles and also drawing members from the Camargue area of southern France. At times performing with as many as 11 musicians on stage, the lineup over the years has consisted of vocalist Helno Rota de Lourcqua (also known as Helno or Nöel Rota); guitarist and vocalist Stefane Mellino; accordionist and vocalist Matthias Canavase (also known as Canavese or Matias); bassist, guitarist, and vocalist Jean-Marie Paulus (also known as Paulus, Casio Paulus, or Paulo); trumpeter Michel Ochowiak (also known as Mich, Big Mitch, and Twist); backing vocalist Iza Mellino, Stefane Mellino’s wife; trombonist and vocalist Abraham Sirinix (also known as Abraham Braham); pianist Jo Roz (also known as l’Ami Ro; real name Joe Ruffier des Mimes); drummer Gaby and singers Juanita and Nono, who all appeared only on the group’s debut album; percussionist and vocalist Julot (also known as Julo); drummer Zé Verbalito (also known as Ze Ze); percussionist Ortoli, who appeared on the Famille Nombreuse album; guitarist and bassist Begs, who joins the band for live performances; drummer Guenole Biger; trombonist Gwen Badoux, who played on the Green Bus album; and percussionist Sydney Thiam.
The original nine-member lineup—Helno, Braham, l’Ami Ro, the Mellinos, Paulus, Canavase, Gaby, and Ochowiak—created the band out of a friendship, making them a tight-knit unit. In addition, many were new to their instruments, resulting in unorthodox styles of playing. Underneath Les Négresses Vertes’ dramatic punk-folk sound and energy existed the influences of blues, mambo, Latin, and various other forms of music, an incredible mix that immediately struck a chord with French audiences. In 1988, the group released their first single, the uncharacteristic hardcore punk protest song “200 Ans D’Hypocrisie.”
With their debut, however, Les Négresses Vertes would introduce the sound that would make them famous. Mlah, released in 1989, introduced flamenco, rai rhythms, ska-soul horns, and riotous choruses into the mix, but maintained the same punk attitude as well as an overall warm, very French quality. “We represent France,” Canavase explained to Edwards,” but with our colors.” Soon, the group’s popularity spread throughout Great Britain as well. One single,” Zobi,” was named Record of the Week by English Radio 1 daytime
Members include Gwen Badoux (appeared on Green Bus), trombone; Begs (live performance member), guitar, bass; Guenole Biger, drums; Matthias Canavase (also known as Canavese or Matias; born in Paris in 1966), accordion, vocals; Gaby (appeared on Mlah), drums; Juanita (appeared on Mlah), vocals; Julot (also known as Julo; appeared on Mlah and Famille Nombreuse), percussion, vocals; Helno Rota de Lourcqua (also known as Helno or Nöel Rota; died on January 22, 1993), vocals; Iza Meffino (married to Stefane Mellino; studied fine art at Montpellier), vocals, percussion; Stefane Mellino (born in Algeria; married to Iza Mellino), guitar, vocals; Nono (appeared on Mlah), vocals; Michel Ochowiak (also known as Mich, Big Mitch, and Twist), trumpet, bugle; Ortoli (appeared on Famille Nombreuse), percussion; Jean-Marie Paulus (also known as Paulus, Casio Paulus, or Paulo), bass, guitar, vocals; Jo Roz (also known as l’Ami Ro; real name Joe Ruffier des Mimes; appeared on Mlah and Famille Nombreuse), piano, percussion; Abraham Sirinix (also known as Abraham Braham; appeared on Mlah and Famille Nombreuse), trombone, vocals; Sydney Thiam (appeared on Zig-Zague and Green Bus), percussion; Zé Verbalito (also known as Ze Ze; born in Camargue; appeared on Famille Nombreuse and Red Hot and Blue), drums.
Formed in 1987 in Paris; released debut album Mlah, 1989; contributed track to Red Hot and Blue AIDS benefit album, 1990; released Famille Nombreuse, 1991; released first album without Helno, Zig-Zague, 1995; released Trabendo, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Virgin Records, 338 N. Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, (310) 278-1181.
DJs, even though both the song and the album fell just short of the British charts.
In the summer of that year, the group gave their first public performances in the United Kingdom with a series of sold-out gigs at Ronnie Scott’s nightclub in south London, then played at the world music festival WOMAD. After this, the group made a bold move by touring in Beirut, Lebanon. With Les Négresses Vertes’ highly entertaining live shows, cultural background, and infectious music, the group’s popularity soared. In 1990, the group contributed the track “I Love Paris,” a song by Cole Porter, to the Red Hot and Blue AIDS benefit album. This was the only song the group recorded in a language other than French. Around the same time, Les Négresses Vertes participated in several antiracism events in France.
In 1991, the band arrived with their second studio album, aptly titled Famille Nombreuse. For this record, Stefane Mellino had taken on most of the songwriting duties; Helno, whose drug habit was increasingly interfering with his creative abilities, remained unable to write new songs. However, Famille Nombreuse —and Mellino’s songwriting force—proved a huge success in both France and Britain, with the ska-styled single “Famille Heureuse” again just missing the United Kingdom charts.
After another round of touring, Helno, attempting to overcome his addiction to heroin, took a leave from the band and moved home with his parents. However, on January 22, 1993, he tragically died of an overdose in his own bed. The remaining members of the Les Négresses Vertes family were hard hit by the event; four left the group immediately, and those who stayed were left fearful and fragile, contemplating breaking up the group altogether. “At the moment when he died, he died so suddenly that we couldn’t believe it,” Mellino told Edwards.
To the joy of fans, Les Négresses Vertes decided to press on. While considering their next move, the group released a 1993 stopgap album entitled 10 Remixes 87-93, featuring remixes by the likes of Massive Attack and William Orbit. The record also included a new version of “200 Ans D’Hypocrisie” in honor of Helno. Two years later, Les Négresses Vertes released an album of new material, Zig-Zague, with producer Rupert Hine. A double album of live recordings, Green Bus, followed in 1996. Both recordings received critical praise and established Mellino as the undoubted leader and dominant songwriting force.
In late 1999, Les Négresses Vertes released Trabendo with British producer Howie B. The set of seductive songs and ultra-contemporary grooves proved once again that Les Négresses Vertes had maintained their unique edge, continuing to outshine their younger rivals. In the United Kingdom, bands such as Trans-Global Underground worked in similar areas, but whereas these British bands always seemed over-stylized or contrived, Les Négresses Vertes eclecticism and humor always felt effortless. The members’ differences, as well as their deep relationships with one another, have also enabled them to endure. “They bring with them influences from various parts of the world just because of their mixed-family backgrounds and the fact that they co-exist in this huge kind of family spirit,” former producer Hind told Edwards. “I mean, nine members and their respective wives and girlfriends and boyfriends, and they kind of operate as a large group, as a family, or a commune even.”
Mlah, Razzia, 1989.
(With others) Red Hot and Blue (contributed version of Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris”), 1990.
Famille Nombreuse, Razzia, 1991.
10 Remixes 87-93, Razzia, 1993.
Zig-Zague, Razzia, 1995.
Green Bus, Razzia, 1996.
Trabendo, Virgin, 1999.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editors, Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Billboard, November 6, 1999.
Daily Telegraph, March 23, 2000.
Time International, December 19, 1994, p. 71.
Les Négresses Vertes, http://www.digiserve.com/Inv/(July 21, 2000).
The World Online, http://www.theworld.org (July 21, 2000).
“Les Négresses Vertes—Band on the Comeback Road,” Morning Edition (NPR), December 20, 1995.
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