It's the internet broadcaster that has become the channel of choice, a brand so ubiquitous that, like sites such as Facebook, it's almost a verb as well as a noun. Its protean content has expanded way beyond the site's original spectrum of virals, happy slapping footage, You've Been Framed-style antics and Speaker's Corner rants.
Since deals were struck to allow YouTube to put music videos on to its Alexandrian library – its ambition was to upload every music video ever made – the online community has followed like Klondike prospectors. YouTube is now a goldmine of music of every hue and vintage, and for world music fans it's a fantastic resource of hitherto unseen footage.
Almost any artist you care to name has a place there now. I've found superb vintage Afro-beat from Fela Kuti; there's an utterly charming, hand-held video of the young Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade – one of the headliners at the Barbican this spring – sitting on a Cape Verdean street with fellow singer Mariana Aydar, performing a song by her mentor Orlando Pantera. The great Congolese rumba star Franco performing "Tangawizi" in a vintage African TV broadcast is simply a revelation. And none of this is ever likely to appear on any other channel.
There's a lot of chaff, and two-minute snippets of camera phone footage swaying along from row Q at the O2. And though Prince and Led Zeppelin have enough muscle to ensure that even the ropiest fan footage gets taken off pronto, just a few clicks of the mouse will take you off the beaten track and into a multitude of world music acts that generally pass well under the radar of mainstream broadcast media.
Even better, it's unmediated by the usual control mechanisms, with content coming not from producers and executives but directly from fans or artists. You can assemble your own journey through all manner of music traditions, and there are gems to be unearthed.
I once picked up tapes in Morocco of a band called Oudaden. Almost every stall in every town had their music. Each song featured an incredible, echo-laden guitar and hypnotic vocals. I never came across them again outside Morocco until I found them on YouTube.
This year, another Moroccan band, Nass El Ghiwane (Martin Scorsese called them "the Rolling Stones of Morocco") has been nominated for one of this year's BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music. But unlike Nass, Oudaden have never had a record released in the West. The only other westerner I came across who had heard of Oudaden – and raved about their music – was Robert Plant. I interviewed him after he'd performed on the same bill as Tinariwen at the Festival of the Desert in 2003. He talked about travelling through southern Morocco with Jimmy Page in the Seventies and coming across Oudaden's echoing, hypnotic sound.
A session of late-night browsing brought me to Oudaden on YouTube. I'd started digging up classic rock'*'roll bootleg footage. Then I keyed in Oudaden and was amazed to find a long list of performances – songs that had received 30, 40, even 50,000 hits. It's mostly handheld, windblown footage of long live numbers that begin a capella with the lead singer's solo vocal call, what Plant remembers as "that joyous Vox teardrop guitar sound".
Seeing Oudaden performing – the weird shape of their guitars, the rapt fervour of their open-air audiences – was to witness a music I loved but knew almost nothing about.
Since uncovering those golden hours of Oudaden footage, I've used YouTube to explore a swathe of artists. The late, great Ali Farka Touré at the Festival of the Desert? Check. Another of this year's Radio 3 Awards for World Music nominees, the French Gitane artist Thierry Titi Robin, spinning magic out of the oud in a palace in Jaipur accompanied by a classical Indian dancer? Check. Balkan Gypsy singer Saban Bajramovic playing a wedding gig at a motel in northern Serbia? Check, check, and check again.
None of this gives artists and record companies an income. But two new digital channels that broadcast world music – the Africa Channel, and Nat Geo Music – aren't paying either. The broadcasters' argument is that it's good PR; that artists should wise up and climb on board. Given tight budgets in niche broadcasting, their claim is probably true that if they had to pay the artists, there would be no channels to show them on.
The Africa Channel has a strong schedule of Afrocentric programming, and its Soundcheck at Momo's series has a good line-up – but it can't beat the anarchic happenstance of finding the hidden gems on YouTube that other broadcasters just cannot reach.
The online global jukebox
Ali Farka Touré
Zaiko & Ali Farka Toure
Mayra Andrade e Mariana Aydar 'Tunuka'
Fela Kuti 'Teacher Don't Teach Me No Nonsense'
Nass al Ghiwane
Saban Bajramovic documentary
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