POP / French dressing: Few Continental stars survive the Channel, but Les Negresses Vertes travel well. Philip Sweeney joined them en voyage

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Les Negresses Vertes have played quite a few London halls in their six-year career but none as appropriate as the Cafe de Paris in Leicester Square, where they performed for the first time in 18 months last week.

If Les Negresses Vertes were a London night-club, they'd be the Cafe de Paris, its chipped and cigarette-packed 1950s gold and red Rococo interior an exact equivalent of their studiedly sleazy ruffled shirts and flea-market suits. It's also the nearest thing in London to their Paris base, the old Cigale cabaret on the Boulevard de Rochechouart, where they meet in a rehearsal room below their manager's office.

Their look is a key element of Les Negresses' appeal, underscoring their sound, which is an equally sharp-eyed bricolage of strummed Spanish guitars, Parisian accordions, snatches of Latin horns, touches of ska and lyrics redolent of chanson realiste, deftly arrayed on a base of workmanlike rock and roll.

Les Negresses are much better live than on record, which is partly to do with their visual side and with the clap-along party atmosphere they generate, but also with the fact that their music, when you get down to it, is pretty insubstantial. None the less, the Negresses' recipe and a certain casual charm they exude have made them that rarest of showbiz phenomena, a French group the English like.

The Rita Mitsouko are too desperate to be zany, the Tetes Raides are too arty, Alain Souchan and Francis Cabrel are too middle-of-the-road and you need to understand the words, and Johnny Hallyday, especially in new English language mode, is as ridiculous as only an elderly, leather- trousered St Tropez Belgian can be. But the Negresses are spot on - French, streetwise and a touch exotic. Their Anglo-Saxon success is not lost on the French press, which is only too aware of the snooty reception generally awaiting their idoles on the other side of the Channel, and fame abroad has fed back into the band's soaring domestic reputation.

Les Negresses were in London to promote a new EP, Aperitif, out this week, which in turn precedes a new album, Zig-Zague, due for release in the UK in early 1995, for some reason six months after France. The new records, and the resumption of their usual packed touring schedule, represent their comeback after the death of their chief singer and lyricist, Helno Rota, in January of 1993.

His peculiar charisma and catchy songs were central to the group's success and, coming as it did amid rumours of rifts, his death placed a question over Les Negresses' future. I went to the French launch of the new album last month to see the question removed.

Normally launch bashes are the least rewarding as sources of insight, but Les Negresses' product is so intimately connected with the art and ethos of entertainment, they are different. Also, they throw a damn good party: my last view of the late Helno was of him belly-dancing on a table in a Beirut restaurant at 4am. The group's canny duo of managers have a lot to do with this: the half-Lebanese Assad Debs organised the headline-grabbing Beirut trip.

This time it was his partner Jacques Renault's turn, which was why we were down in the south-west near the Spanish border, where his wife's family inhabits the lovely little spa town of Salies de Bearn. In March this year, Renault installed Les Negresses, the English producer Rupert Hine and a mobile recording studio in the great wooden belle epoque interior of the old Hotel du Parc, taken over for the event. The album launch was timed to coincide with Salies' annual town fete, and 200 assorted Parisian rock writers, Spanish label executives and Italian dance remixers descended for the occasion.

Les Negresses' jade 1960s Mercedes coach - bought for pounds 1,000 from a football club near Toulouse with their first record advance - was parked outside the palm-adorned terrace of the hotel.

There was a short performance by the group in yet another well-chosen setting - the pillared and balconied hall of the hotel - followed by a noisy dinner of eels zig-zague and many bottles of local Jurancon. The next day the town fete lunch - 500 locals at long tables in the square - featured the Italian remix posse dancing on tables to a brass band. Afterwards the Negresses slumped under parasols and answered questions.

The group had slimmed down from 10 to a nucleus of five original members, bassist Paulus and guitarist Mellino told me, with another four semi-members adding brass and percussion. They'd decided it was impossible to replace Rota, so they'd each increase their share of singing and songwriting to fill the gap.

The new songs were in the same vein as the old, modified by the evolving tastes of the various writers: Paulus' love of dub reggae and ska, Mellino's of flamenco, everybody's of the currently fashionable mambo. The album had come together well, they felt, now they were working on the live act. 'We're like a football team with new players . . . il faut que la mayonnaise se reprenne . . .'

Judging by their Cafe de Paris show, the mayonnaise is emulsifying nicely.

The stage was spread as usual with the faithful oriental carpets. Matias' accordion and the packed dance-floor bounced along merrily.

Mambo Show, their EP's headline number, may not be a real mambo, but the record has already sold 60,000 copies in France. 'After the rain,' goes the lyric of the EP's second track, 'comes the fine weather'.

'Aperitif' by Les Negresses Vertes is on Virgin

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