Stars of Africa

Musicians are still forced to compete in a quasi-apartheid media environment, argues Peter Culshaw

The London African Music Festival taking place this month at the South Bank in London reopens a fierce debate sparked by the Live 8 concerts last year. It concerns the place, or lack of it, of African music in Britain's cultural landscape. Bob Geldof was rightly criticised for putting on an event mainly in aid of Africa without including any African musicians on the bill.

In the end, he was embarrassed enough to agree to a small simultaneous African music show in Cornwall. It smacked of tokenism, and received scant attention from the world's media, who gave far more airtime to Velvet Revolver and other second-rate indie bands at Hyde Park than to the innovative acts at Cornwall. Giving equal status to African musicians would not only have made a real difference to their careers, it would have symbolised that we are all in this together. As it was, Live 8 seemed perniciously old-fashioned in its paternalistic attempt to help these poor people of Africa.

Celebrating the creativity of Africa, as the London African Music Festival does, is partly about turning around the notion of a whole continent of victims. African music, like any other sort of music, is hugely variable in quality. There have been times when rather poor musicians from Africa have been promoted here, who appealed only to worthy types who thought they could make up for Britain's colonial past with guilty applause. Geldof's decision was particularly short-sighted, however, because Africa is in the middle of a period of extraordinary musical creativity.

This is not just my eccentric opinion. Last year, the music magazine fRoots polled what it considered to be the 200 most influential movers and shakers in the music industry (promoters, record companies and journalists) on the best global and folk records of 2005. Four out of the top five records came from West Africa. One breakthrough act is Amadou and Mariam, a blind middle-aged couple from Mali whose unique brand of guitar music has won favour with trendsetters such as the French star Manu Chao. The couple have been making waves across Europe. In France, their latest album, Dimanche à Bamako, was top five in the mainstream charts for several months. In the UK, it has been widely acclaimed and won them a Radio 3 world music award.

It seems likely that the trend will continue next year. World Circuit, the adventurous independent label res-ponsible for the Buena Vista Social Club, is throwing its weight behind a promising selection of West African musicians. The label has recently released Boulevard de l'Indépendance, a masterpiece by the Grammy-winning Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté and his Symmetric Orchestra. Later this year, it will release a solo album by Diabaté's erstwhile collaborator Ali Farka Touré, who died in March.

Yet there are still significant barriers to success for non-western musicians. Even in our era of iTunes and downloading, major labels are reluctant to back artists who are unlikely to make the pop charts. Mainstream stations such as Radios 1 and 2 remain immensely important, and they simply refuse to play African music. According to the veteran world music DJ Charlie Gillett, mainstream radio is actually more conservative in its approach to foreign-language records than it has ever been. He maintains that non-English- language music got more airplay in the 1950s than it does now.

Presumably the mainstream radio stations would argue that these records are not commercial pop - and the BBC can point to its support of world music on Radio 3, with excellent shows such as Late Junction, World Routes and Andy Kershaw's programmes. But it is the equivalent of staging a show in Cornwall while the main action takes place in Hyde Park.

It is true that a record such as Youssou N'Dour's 2004 album Egypt, a stunningly original piece of introspective music that boldly mixes West African Sufi music with Egyptian strings, may be more suitable for Radio 3. Yet there is lots of commercial pop music from Africa, too. Amadou and Mariam are the classic example: in countries where mainstream radio did play Dimanche à Bamako, it sailed into the pop charts. To date, the album has sold just under a million copies worldwide; had Radio 1 or 2 given it airplay, it would undoubtedly have broken the million mark by now. And there are plenty more where that came from.

If part of Live 8's message was about making trade fairer, it actually scored a spectacular own goal. Just as Malian farmers find it impossible to compete against heavily subsidised American cotton, so groups such as Amadou and Mariam find it an uphill struggle to compete in a quasi-apartheid media environment. This isn't especially a left-wing argument. Right-wing believers in free trade should also object to this distortion of the market.

What is gratifying, however, is that African music is increasingly getting live exposure in England. A case in point is the terrific London season, which will feature the magisterial voice of Ethiopia's Mahmoud Ahmed as well as the British debut of Diabaté with his Symmetric Orchestra, among many others. It would take pages to describe the sheer variety of music on offer at these gigs. Catch it there, because you won't find it on mainstream radio.

The London African Music Festival runs until 28 May at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room, South Bank, London SE1 (08703 804 300). www.rfh.org.uk