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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.