ROCK / The crooner in lavender: RIP Helno, singer with Les Negresses Vertes. Philip Sweeney pays tribute

HELNO Rota's death was like his life: a blend of rock 'n' roll recklessness and suburban banality.

Two weeks ago the singer with Les Negresses Vertes was found dead in bed in the room he'd occupied since childhood in his mother's flat in a poor quarter of northern Paris. He used quite of lot of drugs, not least alcohol, and still went home to his mother's as much as anywhere else to crash out, though with the substantial sums of money his group had been making lately, he was on the point of buying a house. He'd left behind his blue mobylette the previous night and had been dropped off after a Negresses Vertes concert by his fellow member and co- songwriter Matias Canavese.

Les Negresses Vertes are one of France's most successful musical exports of the last decade, and Helno was a central part of their recipe. Off stage a slight, pallid, snaggle-toothed and rumpled figure, his performing persona acquired a quizzical leer and a befuddled but expressive body vocabulary which came close to charisma.

Helno was self-taught musically, as are all the Negresses Vertes. Years of hanging around the streets of Les Halles doing nothing much but drugs led, in 1985, to Helno's entree to showbiz at its most alternative - in the form of employment as a roadie / backing singer in the quasi-punk band Les Beruriers Noirs, which he left the following year when Les Negresses Vertes coalesced.

The Negresses (their name 'Green Negresses' came from an insult by a yob at a provinicial dance) cleverly embodied many of the bubbling sub-strands of Eighties French urban culture - music from Andalucia and North Africa, old rock 'n' roll, flea-market dandy clothes - and, by including another retro ingredient, a bouquet garni of Parisian chanson qualities, they came to represent a sort of new exotic French-ness to the outside world, from Vogue art editors to teenage ravers.

Helno's role was by no means confimed to his lavender drape- suited, apache-crooner image. As chief lyricist, his punning, slang- riddled, black-humorous ditties enabled the Negresses to place themselves in the modern chanson realiste school, echoing Aristide Bruant's similar tales of low-life from a century before. Helno often composed out loud while on his bike, he said. Zobi La Mouche, the Negresses' first hit, was based on an obscene phrase (French obscene, therefore milder than British) from his childhood.

I sat next to Helno on a plane to Beirut for a concert a year before his death. I wish I could say I'd penetrated his shy, indirect exterior. Helno dozed with a cigarette in one hand and a Bloody Mary in the other most of the way. 'I like Bloody Marys for flying,' he remarked at one point, 'it's good because it's, er . . . bloody'. He was at pains to explain his name as printed on Negresses' LP sleeves: 'It's just a name I use for the stage.' Helno Rota de Lourcqua - Helno: his given name Noel in reverse. Rota: his genuine family name. Lourcqua: from the rue de l'Ourcq, the run-down canal-side 19th arrondissement estate he still primarily frequented in Paris. His stated raison d'etre was to party ('Les Negresses Vertes, c'est la fete, quoi') and he excelled as a party centrepiece, celebrating after the concert that particular weekend on a table top at 4am by belly-dancing in competition with a Lebanese socialite. The other members of the group, professionals despite the high spirits, looked after him a little like a lost sheep, and clearly treasured him. He was not larger than life, or even really very full of life, but his life was of singular character.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks