Putumayo World: Dan Storper’s Music without Borders
Aug 31, 2011 10:10AM
● By April Thompson
Since the 1970s, Putumayo World Music founder Dan Storper has applied his entrepreneurial acumen to the business of bridging cultures. Starting with a small shop selling crafts and clothes that he discovered while traveling throughout Latin America, Storper’s business evolved into an ethnically inspired line of apparel sold in his seven U.S. Putumayo stores and 600 other boutiques around the country. The music mixes that Storper compiled and played in his stores led in 1993 to the creation of the Putumayo World Music record label, intended to introduce people to other cultures around the world through music. In 1997, he sold the clothing business to focus full time on music.
Putumayo’s upbeat and wide-ranging compilations are distinctive— exemplified by their hallmark folk art CD covers by British illustrator Nicola Heindl and comprehensive liner notes. Putumayo’s releases, including songs for its children’s label, Putumayo Kids, are now available in 7,000 stores in more than 80 countries. A longtime member of the Social Venture Network, Putumayo has donated more than $1 million of the proceeds from its CD sales to nonprofit organizations that support communities where the music originates.
What common threads characterize the widely divergent genres that comprise international music?
Thinking about my own experience growing up listening to crossover artists like Manu Dibango, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Sergio Mendes, I see a universal connection to melody-driven music with interesting rhythms and beautiful voices, even if it’s in other languages or uses unfamiliar instrumentation.
What are you trying to achieve in your Putumayo Presents compilations?
Putumayo looks for universally appealing music that everyone can relate to. I refer to it as, “the spirit of Bob Marley”—I don’t know of anyone who can listen to his songs and not enjoy them.
Every album attempts to encapsulate the best elements of a culture and music of an area or region. We carefully curate each thematic album so that, rather than a collection of random tracks, it is a musical journey that will uplift listeners and interest them not only in the music, but also in th and the region.
“Music really can transform and transcend hardships and boundaries.”
Every year, I receive emails and letters from people that have been inspired by the music to travel to a place they’ve discovered through our albums. We hope that more and more people will dig deeper by traveling to these countries, buying the works of individual artists and creating real connections.
How does Putumayo give back to the cultures whose music it shares with the world? For example, do you try to preserve “endangered species” of music?
We don’t set out to save dying genres of music, but one of the byproducts of our work is a greater awareness of other cultures and musical traditions. We’re particularly interested in finding musical gems that may not be known to people inside or outside of their
country. In the process, we help people recognize and value the strong musical heritage they have. Sometimes we discover artists that become featured on movie soundtracks or are signed by a major label as a result of their collaboration with Putumayo.
While we focus on presenting great music rather than countering stereotypes and cultural misperceptions, that often ends up being a healthy side effect. Much of the music we promote comes from parts of the world struggling with poverty, war and other issues; some are commonly associated with negative connotations in the Western media. Yet many of these places have rich traditions that are mostly accessible to outsiders through music, art and food. New Orleans, the city I now call home, is a great example of a place that is trying to rise above various challenges and misperceptions.
What are some of the trends you see in world music today?
For centuries, trading caravans would bring new instruments and songs to different regions, in turn, influencing the music of an area. Today, with the explosion of digital music, there is more music cross-fertilization than ever. African, Asian and Australian musicians can now hear each other’s music through tour concerts, the Internet and other media.
Almost everyone can now similarly access music from around the world; at the same time, this means there is that much more for people to sift through. The music of the world is an ocean of millions of songs. Putumayo employs several people to do just that—search the world to identify little-known music that people all over will love.
April Thompson is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Connect at AprilWrites.com.