GREEN PARTY Daniela Soave on the troubadors' triumph

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The Independent Culture
During their 1973 American tour, Led Zeppelin travelled between gigs on the Starship, a specially converted 40-seater Boeing jet complete with bar, bedrooms, kitchen and all mod cons. For their British tour, which kicks off tonight in Wolverhampton, Les Negresses Vertes will also be relying on customised transport: a mint-green Sixties Mercedes bus, bought with the fruits of their first advance in 1988. Not for the French ensemble the horrors of backstage catering: they raid the nearest supermarket and rustle up a meal on board their trusty traveller.

"This group is also like our family," explains one of the founding Negresses, Stefan Mellino. "It's more a way of life than a job. When we go on tour we like to be together and eat together. It's a bit like a circus."

If this makes them sound like a bunch of latterday troubadours, a glimpse of their stage set confirms this suspicion. At a recent Paris concert in the atmospheric equestrian Cirque Zingaro (where two of the Negresses once worked), huge Oriental carpets were hung, washing-line style, to provide a backdrop while smaller rugs were scattered on the stage floor and flung over speakers. An enormous golden lantern dangled over the stage, and Les Negresses Vertes decked themselves in flea-market chic: neckerchiefs, shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow, baggy, Forties-style trousers. And their music, a charismatic collision of flamenco, rai, Parisian accordions. Latin horns and French chanson, adds to the gypsy image.

It's a winning combination that has attracted fans the world over. Formed in 1987, Les Negresses Vertes - named after an insult hurled at their green-haired punk singer, Helno - struck paydirt with their first album, Mlah, which sold 160,000 copies in France and more than a quarter of a million elsewhere. Subsequent releases confirmed their star-status, but the band was dealt a serious blow when Helno died of a heroin overdose at the beginning of 1993

"It was a difficult year following Helno's death," says Mellino. "Should we continue? Did we still want to play together? We decided simply to take time to get strong again."

Last summer, the band felt strong enough to start work on new material. Enlisting the help of Rupert Hine, an English producer, the five core members decamped to the quaint spa town of Salies de Barn in the south of France, where they set up a mobile studio in the atrium of the Htel du Parc. There they recorded their new album, Zig Zague.

"We wanted to feel close to one another, and to record in a place where we could live and work at the same time," explains accordionist Matthias Canavese. "Rupert is very English and so we worked in a brisk, English way, getting the thing done in a few weeks - but we did it with lots of French wine!"

Now, Les Negresses are ready to hit Britain in their big green bus, before heading off to Ireland, Australia and America.

``We all have to be able to enjoy ourselves,'' says Mellino. ``We don't care about the number of people who come to see us - as long as everyone goes home with a big smile on their faces."