World music: The beats of the globe

Whether you're in Wiltshire or West Africa, exploring the global music scene is now much less complex than the beats you will encounter

What's the attraction?

For many people, world music is only as old as Paul Simon's 1986 album, Graceland, but it has always been out there. In recent years, those fed up of seeing the latest fad at expensive, corporate UK festivals have started heading overseas in search of alternative, authentic musical culture.

"World music" is a hotly disputed term, of course, but at its best it's music rooted deeply in ethnic or local culture. Far from being a niche sub-genre for sandal-and-sock wearers, it encompasses all manner of rocking, rolling fusions. While it's relatively easy to travel independently to some countries and to major music festivals around the globe, joining a guided tour means you can go to small provincial festivals, forget the logistics and focus on the music. And, if you can't time your trip to coincide with a festival, you can always hop down to Lisbon for a fado-themed weekend, to Santiago in Cuba to get an insight on the son-music scene beyond Buena Vista ,or InterRail your way around the Gypsy music scenes in the Balkans.

To the source: West Africa

Music aficionados reserve special admiration for West Africa. From Senegal to Benin to Ghana, there's an incredibly diverse range of traditions and rhythms. Anyone who has listened to Fela Kuti or Koo Nimo will recognise deep within the pulse, the source of American blues, rock and bluegrass. West Africa Discovery (westafricadiscovery.co.uk) runs a 12-day Benin, Ghana and Togo festival tour with full board, from £1,350, excluding flights. Departures in January and December 2013.

Foreign music at home

You don't have to fly half-way around the world to hear great music. The UK has a superb folk scene and as one of the global hubs for music, plays host to lots of world music showcases and world-inflected festivals. Larmer Tree (larmertreefestival.co.uk, 11-15 July) near Salisbury has six stages for around 70 artists including Mali's Amadou and Mariam and Fatoumata Diawara (one-day pass from £36).

The Big Tent (bigtentfestival.co.uk, 21-22 July) in Fife, this year features gigs by Salsa Celtica, Sufi musician Ilhan Barutcu and The Proclaimers (one-day pass from £30, children under 16 free). While Joyful Noise (joyful noise.co.uk, 14-29 September) in London, showcases mainly African music with concerts for 2012 by the Congo Allstars and Ska Cubano.

The full Brazilian

Daunted by all that booty-shaking extroversion at the Carnival? Then consider volunteering for one of Traveller Worldwide's (01903 502595; travellersworldwide.com) projects and combine voluntary work with lessons given by local musicians. Staff will also point you towards the best places for live music. Prices from £695 per person include accommodation and breakfast, but not international flights.

Riffs at the Riff

In September or October, Jodhpur's Marwar full-moon harvest festival incorporates a series of free concerts in large public spaces. Running in tandem in the "Blue City" is the acclaimed Rajasthan International Folk Festival (Riff), which this year runs from 26-30 October (jodhpurfolkfestival.org).It features everything from traditional folk performances to club nights against the backdrop of the Mehrangarh Fort. Original Travel (020-7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk) combines the festival with a 10-day luxury group tour of Rajasthan, including Agra, from £3,250 per person including flights, accommodation and festival pass. Departs 20 October.

World travel with the specialists

The launch of Songlines Music Travel in 2008, backed by a firm run by Explore co-founder Derek Moore, raised the bar for music-themed trips in the range of destinations offered and the level of expertise. Numbers are limited to a maximum of 20 per group and specialist writers lead them. This year, the company has trips to Serbia, Lisbon, Cuba, Mali and Senegal, among others, and has just announced a new Jamaican 12-day Caribbean Vibrations tour, departing 2 January 2013. It includes the Maroon Festival in Accompong, visits to Kingston's reggae landmarks and a calypso session. The price of £1,375 per person includes all accommodation, but not flights (020-8505 2582; songlines.co.uk/music-travel).

Womad around the world

The World of Music, Arts & Dance, better known as Womad (womad.org), celebrates its 30th birthday this year. It was founded by Peter Gabriel and since he first took the stage in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, with Simple Minds and Echo & The Bunnymen, it has become a byword for top-quality world music. The event is now held at Charlton Park in Wiltshire. This year, it takes place 27-29 July (one-day ticket £65). The brand has also spread to locations including Adelaide and New Zealand, where events take place in March. Austravel (0808 159 7455; austravel.com) can arrange a five-night trip for 2013's Womadelaide (8-11 March), from £1,429, including flights and five-star accommodation, departing 6 March.

Tango: go local

Some celebrated music scenes have been sanitised and packaged for coach tours. That's very much the case with tango in Buenos Aires, where foreign visitors are herded into cheesy extravaganzas featuring piped music and charged over the odds for a mediocre experience. But tango can serve to open up the history and subcultures of Buenos Aires, especially if you get a private tour or join one of the group tours offered by quasi-academic tour agency Eternautas. Its three-hour Hidden South Tour explores forgotten neighbourhoods and shows tango's relationship with history and immigration; from £26 per person (00 54 11 5031 9916; eternautas.com).

Who said that?

"Music is a universal language, it draws people together and proves, as well as anything, the stupidity of racism" – Peter Gabriel

"Music happens to be an art form that transcends language" – Herbie Hancock

"Son is the most perfect thing for entertaining the soul"– Ignacio Piñeiro, founder of Cuba's Septeto Nacional

Insider Information

"I am drawn to festivals in cities where each artist gets their space and their audience has to seek them out. Consistently innovative is Viva de Vic in mid-September (mmvv.net) outside Barcelona. It's been a gateway into Europe for some great Latin American artists, as well as showcasing the Catalan scene – music happens across the town in squares, clubs and bars."

Andy Wood, organiser of London's La Linea music festival

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