World music - c'est chic

The musical melting-pot that is contemporary France could teach us Brits a thing or two, says Robin Denselow

There was a time, back during the rock upheavals of the Sixties and Seventies, when French pop was regarded as something of a joke. After all, wasn't this the land of Johnny Hallyday (not many people in the UK had actually heard him, but it was widely assumed that he must be dreadful), and didn't all French rock bands sound like a duff Rolling Stones? For many of those fixated with developments in the US rather than Europe, this image has endured. But French music has changed, dramatically, and it's the immigrant community who deserve much of the credit.

Paris has become one of the great music centres - for electronic music, hip hop, and what we call "world music" but what for many in France is simply a branch of mainstream pop, and one that is increasingly mixed with other styles. French-based artists like Souad Massi and Rokia Traore - both signed to French labels - are rapidly becoming international celebrities (both are nominated for next year's Radio 3 World Music Awards), and even that best-selling star from the Cape Verde Islands, Cesaria Evora, is signed to a French label. For the French music industry, world music has become a useful export, which even the government helps to promote.

Africa was the starting point for all this, and remains crucial to the French music scene. Bands from across francophone Africa moved to Paris to take advantage of the recording studios, make money, or escape conflict back home. Here, musicians from the Congo or Senegal found themselves working alongside young rai bands from Algeria, and they in turn rubbed shoulders with those influenced by the massive success of French flamenco and synthesiser outfit, the Gypsy Kings.

And all this, in turn, has influenced many of the more adventurous French bands, starting way back in the late Eighties with the likes of Mano Negra or Les Negresses Vertes, with their rousing fusion of African, Arabic and flamenco styles, mixed in with post-punk energy and even a burst of old-style accordion-backed French chanson. The cultural clash that they helped to pioneer has continued, with bands like Lo'Jo again mixing elements of old-style chanson with wild North African vocals.

In a musical climate like this, it's hardly surprising that African artists continue to move to France, and these include two young divas who have shown that great new music doesn't have to be sung in English. Rokia Traore, the Malian singer, now lives in Amiens with her record producer husband, although her band still live back in Bamako.While based in France she has developed her ideas of a "modern, contemporary music using traditional, classical Malian instruments" - while also exploring more unexpected Western fusions with the Kronos Quartet.

Souad Massi moved to Paris for quite different reasons. As a performer with a cult following back in Algeria, she had been forced to quit singing because she feared that her life was in danger. She had received anonymous threatening phone calls, and was aware that "artists, journalists and singers" had been killed in a country polarised between fundamentalists and what she saw as an often corrupt secular regime. Her song "Yawlidi" - the story of a little boy who grows up to be a political monster - was banned from TV and radio.

She came to France four years ago to take part in an Algerian women's festival, and stayed on to find near-instant success in a way that would be impossible for such an artist arriving in Britain. Although most of her songs are in Arabic, she was signed to a major record label, and while still virtually unknown outside the Algerian community, she managed to have her songs played on the radio. The first radio concert she performed was on Radio Nova, a wildly eclectic commercial outfit that operates from a little courtyard near the Bastille, and can be heard in several towns outside Paris. It plays an all-day mixture of African and Caribbean music, hip hop and electronics, with a far more wide-ranging mix than any commercial station I have ever heard in Britain.

Souad Massi has her own unique style, mixing Western folk themes with the North African influences in her often sad-tinged love songs and political laments, and as such she is very different to her fellow Algerian exiles like Khaled, with his wild rai party music, or the angry Clash-influenced rock of Rachid Taha. Yet in the French music scene Souad Massi is not regarded as a non-commercial novelty. For Radio Nova's Bintou Simpore, she is "both world music and pop cross-over".

African artists arriving in France have other advantages. If they sing in French (as both Rokia and Souad do, on some songs) they are even more likely to be heard on the radio, thanks to the ruling that 40 per cent of the musical output should be in French. If they tour abroad, they may well find help from the French Music Bureau, an organisation funded both by the music industry and the government, to promote French culture - even if the artist is originally from Africa. It makes economic sense. Some 25 per cent of French music export sales are now for "world music", and that's two and half times the sales for French rock and pop, and almost identical to the sales for chanson classics, though still less than sales for electronic music. When Souad Massi toured Britain last week, part of her travel expenses were paid by the Bureau. French music is no longer a joke - it's adventurous and it's being promoted in a way that would be considered unthinkable in Britain. The British music industry (and our radio stations) should take note.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own
    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England