Putumayo: Introducing the World Through Music

by Kerry Dexter / Jun 15, 2015 /
Kerry Dexter's picture

Music speaks in many ways: melody, tone, timbre resonance, rhythm, instrumentation, and word -- but what if you do not understand the words being sung? Dan Storper noticed that people were responding to, and asking about, the music from Latin America and other parts of the world which he played to enhance the atmosphere in his clothing and handcraft stores. An experienced traveler himself, with a degree in Latin American studies and a love of music, he began to follow up on this -- and eventually took the leap of selling his successful clothing company to concentrate on finding and curating collections of world music which would introduce people to, as Putumayo World Music's tagline says, music "guaranteed to make you feel good."

Putumayo: Introducing the World Through Music

 

He developed a somewhat unusual way to carry out this idea, too: rather than signing artists to the label for individual releases, Putumayo chooses tracks. Storper, with input from ethnomusicologist Jacob Edgar, then creates albums with music centered around a theme or a region. These are typically sold through gift shops, craft stores, health stores, and speciality retailers. It has proved a successful way of doing business -- Putumayo now has several international divisions, its albums are found in more than five thousand stores, and a number of its CDs have sold more than one hundred thousand copies each.

Putumayo: Introducing the World Through Music

 

Putumayo Presents: African Beat – Fredy Massamba “Zonza” from Putumayo World Music on Vimeo.

 

Storper finds that the music Putumayo offers reflects and encourages a fundamental  connection across cultures. "Music is often created as a way of helping people rise above their daily problems, " he says.  "Whether in a country like Haiti, where several songs on our upcoming Afro-Caribbean Party collection come from, or a continent like Africa, for the people in countries plagued by poverty, disease, war and other afflictions, music and dance provide an avenue for escape and a way to try to remain positive.  Putumayo tends to choose upbeat, melodic music that is reviewed by our staff to ensure that it has a universal appeal."

Putumayo: Introducing the World Through Music

 

Ethnomusicologist Edgar plays an important role in selecting and curating tracks and creating collections for albums. He points out that "Melody is the most important aspect of a song for Putumayo. We are looking for songs with a universal appeal, and usually, a great melody is the key factor in making a song exceptional. Lyrics are secondary, because they come in so many different languages, although we do make sure that the lyrical content is appropriate for all ages." Though his focus in his academic studies was initially on Latin America, he has traveled widely over the years researching music, and finds that his studies "gave me a foundational understanding of world musical traditions... and also has helped me evaluate when something comes from a place of authenticity and respect for tradition as opposed to superficiality and stereotypes." 

Putumayo: Introducing the World Through Music

Putumayo: Introducing the World Through Music

 

Staff members from varied backgrounds and countries are also involved in evaluating the music. "Our listening sessions in Europe and America are based on the idea of playing songs I've selected to see if our staff feels as positively about them as I do, " Storper explains. "We typically play about a minute of each song and rate them on a scale of one  to ten. Generally, if a song makes it through the US and European listening session, which includes people of many different backgrounds and ages, with a positive rating, that's a good sign it will have broad appeal." The style of the artwork on Putumayo's projects creates a distinct brand as well. British born artist Nicola Heindl has created more than one hundred Putumayo covers, drawing on bold colors and lively scenes as well as her own wide experience of travel to suggest the music and culture shared within each recording.

Putumayo: Introducing the World Through Music

 

Putumayo Presents: Women of Brazil-Flavia Coelho "A Foto" from Putumayo World Music on Vimeo.

 

What about exploring songs in languages you do know? Albums from Putumayo come in languages from around the world. Edgar and Storper have ideas for you on this. Jacob Edgar suggests three things: be patient with yourself and allow appreciation to develop over time, don't dismiss a whole realm of music just because you don't care for one artist's work, and be aware that some music comes across differently -- and in a more accessible way -- live in context than it does through a recording. Dan Storper adds, "Keep an open mind and don't worry that you may not understand the words. Let the melody and rhythm of the song carry you along."

Putumayo: Introducing the World Through Music

 

Putumayo's wide ranging collections include music from countries across the globe. They also produce radio shows for adults and children and Jacob Edgar is host of his own television series, Music Voyager. There is a a children's division of the label, too, Putumayo Kids. Putumayo is committed to helping people in the countries from which they source music, as well, having to date contributed more than one million dollars to non-profit organizations around the world.

http://createtv.com/ShowInfo/Music+Voyager

 

Puspa Dewi – “Pul Sinoge” – Asian Playground from Putumayo World Music on Vimeo.

 

Learn more: https://www.putumayo.com

Next month, our Putumayo conversation continues with a look the album Celtic Cafe.

 

Kerry Dexter is music editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach her at music at wandering educators dot com.
You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Symphony, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places on line and in print, as well as at her own site Music Road.

 

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Putumayo