Putumayo World Music: A Legacy of Cultural Exploration
Before Juan Luis Guerra launched his smooth bachata to world fame, or Gilberto Gil’s samba crossed the borders of Brazil, or Cuban son exploded outside the Caribbean in the late 1990s, Putumayo championed the world music. The company, founded in New York by entrepreneur Dan Storper, began in the 1970s as a store for crafts and musical discoveries that the American globetrotter brought back from his travels in Latin America, Africa, India and elsewhere. But over time the music became bigger than expected, and in 1993 he created Putumayo World Music, a label that has served as a benchmark for captivating sounds from all over the planet.
They were rarities, like bachata from the Dominican Republic, bossa nova from Brazil, Afrobeats from West Africa or bhangra from India, which played a role in its global growth.
“I look back with some pride because we have introduced so many people to music that they didn’t know, be it Latin, African, Caribbean, European,” Storper tells Billboard Español when reflecting on his legacy of three decades, mentioning for example that Carlos Santana met certain African bands through his catalog with whom he ended up trabajando.
With a discography of more than 200 physical albums — many of which are already available on most streaming services — the pioneering label releases today (June 16) its first full-length digital album, Acoustic Latino. Continuing his search for hidden treasures for those seeking a journey into the soul of disparate cultures, the 10-track compilation features songs by Mexican son group Chéjere, whose Yucatán peninsula folk style reflects their Afro-Cuban influences; Colombian singer-songwriter Alejo García, who explores elements of jazz, folk and rock with contemporary sounds; the Cuban singer Niuver, influenced by trova, bossa nova and chanson; and much more.
“Putumayo’s strong point is not only selecting great songs with that human touch, but putting together a sequence that takes you on a musical journey and, as we say, that makes you feel very good,” he says Storper.
Reflecting on the Legacy
Billboard Español met with the founder of the label to discuss the most memorable moments of Putumayo World Music in its 30-year history.
When you reflect on the legacy of Putumayo World Music, what comes to mind?
It is hard to imagine that 30 years have already passed. I look back with some pride because we have introduced many people to music that they did not know, be it Latin, African, Caribbean, or European. The Putumayo company that I founded started as a small store in New York in 1975. I imported crafts and some clothing from Latin America. The Putumayo store started 48 years ago, and Putumayo World Music is 30 years old.
Tell me about the origins of the Putumayo store.
I majored in Latin American studies in college and traveled to Latin America in 1974. I studied [en el extranjero] and I decided to import handicrafts, especially from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. In 1975 I opened my little shop. I started playing African and world music. I mixed the music that I brought from the Andean highlands with Latin music and [artistas] that I liked, like Bob Dylan and others, to help create a mood. People started freaking out not just saying “this is good music”, but “I want to buy it. Where it is? Where can I find it?”
And how did Putumayo World Music start?
That led me to Rhino Records, where I went to do a compilation. I knew its co-founder, Richard Foos, through an organization called the Social Venture Network. In 1993 we published our first two albums [como Putumayo World Music]. It was a time when nobody knew much about international music. If you were Latino, you knew many artists from outside [de Estados Unidos], but the Anglo-Saxon world was not familiar with much of the great music coming out of Latin America and much of the world. We needed a package. I didn’t like the plastic case, and the digipak was just getting started. Record stores didn’t like them [los digipaks] because they tend to break down. Rhino was desperately trying to talk me out of using them, but I insisted.
Putumayo’s covers and illustrations are emblematic of the label. What is the story behind it?
By another coincidence, a woman who was in charge of the interiors and windows of our stores had a friend visiting from London [llamada Nicola Heindl]. [La diseñadora de interiores] He came into my office and said, “Dan, you know that greeting card you have on the bulletin board? My friend made it. She is English and she is coming to New York in a few days. Would you like to meet her?” She had bought this card that I really liked in a store in London a year before, so I said, “Of course!” We were about to found the record label and I liked his art. [Cuando conocí a Heindl] I told him: “What do you think about doing the cover of the first album?” She did it, and people really liked it. We have always used his art.
How did you imagine your role when Putumayo World Music was brewing?
In a way, I saw it as a presenter [de músicas del mundo] in a non-traditional or specialized point of sale, where we introduced people to music by artists they would not have met or heard on the radio. We sold a lot of CDs in record shops, gift shops, and museums where they were used as background music. It was a big part of our history. I had a Dominican designer assistant for our clothing and crafts company and he told me: “Now that you are starting this label, you should listen to Juan Luis Guerra”. Juan Luis Guerra was on Putumayo’s first album [World Vocal (1993)] con [“Ojalá que llueva café”]. We also included Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben, from Brazil.
What other great moments do you fondly remember that have been essential to the success of your label?
The first album we made, Cuba, came out at the same time as the Buena Vista Social documentary Club [en 1999]. We got on the wave with that album; it was a good moment. Then the first artist we signed was Ricardo Lemvo, an Afro-Latino artist from Los Angeles, and we did a music video [de un tema] called “Mambo Yo Yo” that became popular. I remember Carlos Santana telling me that this song was one of his all-time favorites. I ran into Carlos at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and gave him a copy of the One World (1996) album. He told me that he was inspired by [“Guerrilla”] de Touré Kunda, who was on that album, and invited them to participate in his project Supernatural (1999). The song they worked on together is “Africa Bamba”.[En 1998] we released Cairo to Casablanca, which had a Rachid Taha song called “Ya Rayah”. I’ll never forget getting a call from our Colombian distributor saying there was a DJ in Bogotá who started playing that song and the crowd went crazy. It became a huge hit and we couldn’t keep up with it in Colombia. Then it spread to Latin America. I don’t want to take credit for the interest in Arabic music that exploded in Latin America in the 1990s, but to some extent, I think we played a role in it. One of the great things that many have told me is that they traveled to certain countries because they fell in love with their music and decided to visit them. Another of my favorite anecdotes is when Brasileiro (1999) came out, and a Brazilian music expert I knew told me: “Dan, this blows my mind. I’m supposed to be the foremost expert on Brazilian music in the United States, and you just put out an album that has the first four songs and artists I’ve never heard of.” That was a testament to our idea of looking for artists that we could introduce to people who weren’t familiar with them.
How do you get those rare gems?
I give a lot of credit to Jacob Edgar, who has been working with me for about 20 years. He has his own label, Cumbancha. He is also an ethnomusicologist at National Geographic and runs Lindblad Expeditions, where he takes cruisers through these regions of the world to see and discover music. He is a musicologist who knows all the musicians in the Americas.