International front

The term "world music" has finally become redundant in 2008

"We don't do world music and think about the roots and what this sound has been like in the past. We think about the past, present and future. It's a new approach." Lil' John is one-third of the trio known as Buraka Som Sistema. They hail from Portugal but their music is an offshoot of kuduro, an aggressive form of dance music born in Angola, but now influential in youth culture across Europe and the United States.

Buraka Som Sistema are just one group in a wave of music that is confounding stereotypes of "authentic" African, Asian and Latin American sounds. They and other rising stars of dance and rock music, such as the British-born rapper MIA, Cansei de Ser Sexy (CSS) and Bonde do Rolê (both from Brazil), and the American producer Diplo, draw on urban culture in developing countries, where young musicians are more interested in bumping basslines than acoustic sounds, making their tunes for the dance floor rather than the concert hall. "The way African music is perceived in the UK, you had black music in clubs - hip-hop, rap, funk, reggae, dancehall and R'n'B - but no African music in clubs," says the DJ Eric Soul, who has pioneered African dance music in the UK. "Dialogue between the two was just not happening."

The new scene is distinguished by its global outlook, but it offers a marked contrast, even a riposte, to the conventional "world music" scene, which was born from the success of nostalgia-tinged acts such as the Buena Vista Social Club. "World music has been stuck in old formulas," says Lil' John. "There are African cities with McDonald's and H&M, big cities in Africa the same as Europe, and world music has presented one view of whole continents like Africa, mostly from outside of cities."

The BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards, presented this year on 10 April, represent the old guard, regularly honouring in the main acoustic, folk and jazz acts such as the Malian ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate and the flamenco group Son de la Frontera. The awards have been slow to move with the times, ignoring international rock and dance acts that do not sit comfortably in the "world music" box. The token "Club Global" category has for years been dominated by the same acts - in this year's case, the fusion veterans Transglobal Underground.

Initially, the world music scene created much-needed opportunities for acts from outside Europe and the US, argues David Jones, director of Serious, the UK's leading producer of world music events. "Seven years ago, when we were asked by the BBC to create the World Music Awards, our starting point was we wanted to take music from all over the world to people who weren't listening to it. In 2000, there was an awareness of important figures like Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour but there wasn't a constant sense of new names and artists being exposed."

Jones understands why artists are wary of the old categorisation, but defends it as a necessity. "It is a phrase many musicians absolutely hate: why should music from Africa be any more 'world music' than music from this country? On the other hand, I don't know how you would do without it. The fragile foothold it has created means that people like [the Malian singer] Salif Keita get their music heard."

There is a sense, however, that the situation is now changing. Thanks largely to the democratising influence of websites such as MySpace, international sounds have been able to penetrate the mainstream without the help of unimaginative middlemen. As a result, ever-growing numbers of successful dance, pop and rock acts are emerging from outside the usual pop-cultural hubs of London and New York. CSS have performed on an NME tour as well as on Jonathan Ross's talk show. And their compatriots Bonde do Rolê are signed to Domino Records, home of the rock groups Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys.

Some American and British musicians have also actively been helping international acts gain exposure. The new single by the dance superstar Moby features a Nigerian rap group, 419 Squad. Damon Albarn, formerly of Blur, has collaborated extensively with West African musicians and has even set up a record label - Honest Jon's, in conjunction with the London shop of the same name - that is described as a purveyor of "sounds unlimited and outernational".

Alan Scholefield, an Honest Jon's co-founder, detests the world music label. "It's a nasty phrase. It made my blood run cold when I first heard it, it still does now and it always will," he says. "At Honest Jon's, we have long been aware of cooler, rougher and younger strands of music emerging. They are not perceived as authentic, but at the same time they're not deadened by the 'world music' tag. This music is interesting and difficult to pigeonhole. It's impossible to predict, but in ten years I don't think the term will exist."

None of this implies that events such as the World Music Awards need be redundant. As Jones points out, they "give a very important leg-up to artists in terms of international status. They make connections and go to festivals all over the world. Right now, it feels important that something exists which gives that weight and prestige of the BBC to this music." However, if the producers and promoters of international music want to avoid getting left behind, they will have to get to grips with the new world order.

The BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music are broadcast on 11 April on BBC Radio 3 from 7pm-8.45pm. For more details click here

The new wave: ones to watch

Bonde do Rolê Trio from Curitiba in southern Brazil. Fuse sexually charged lyrics and a punk attitude with baile funk dance music

Buraka Som Sistema Portuguese act blending Angolan kuduro with British grime and US techno

Cansei de Ser Sexy Electro-rock group from São Paulo signed to the legendary US rock label Sub Pop

MIA British-born rapper who draws on her Sri Lankan origins and other global influences

Diplo Philadelphia-based producer who brought baile funk to the British dance scene

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back