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World-compilation label Putumayo successfully sells high concepts to well-heeled base

Putumayo: The Little Label That Could

by Carol Cooper

Women of Africa

Nuevo Latino

While the rest of the music industry downsizes like mad, an 11-year-old independent label the majors used to snicker at has scored a 15 percent sales increase over the past two years. Not only surviving but thriving, Putumayo World Music -- based in New York but named for a picturesque river valley in Colombia -- is getting the last laugh largely because it breaks the rules.

As far back as its inaugural partnership with Rhino in 1993, Putumayo preferred to deviate. Refusing to pander to the fickle teen market allowed the label to cultivate a loyal, smart, well-heeled consumer base of over-thirtysomethings. Using the same illustrator for 90 percent of its album covers guaranteed instant brand recognition. Licensing existing recordings rather than constantly risking development capital on unproven new acts gave the imprint more quality control over its final product, plus an eagle-eyed view of new developments on the world-music scene. And all the above led to national radio syndication for the six-year-old Putumayo World Music Hour, where flagship product from other labels as well as Putumayo's own gets aired each week. This year, as the franchise starts to market multiculti stationery, video compilations, and live concert events, Putumayo will be building upon international connections and goodwill resulting from prioritizing high concept over high profits.

Co-founder Dan Storper is probably the most hands-on label chief since Clive Davis. His structural blueprint for compiling each album is that of the streetwise mix tape: all hits, no filler, all seamlessly sequenced to enhance the impact of every track. Before he hired ethnomusicologist Jacob Edgar to head his a&r department in 1998, Storper researched, wrote about, and sequenced nearly everything himself. He's still the final tastemaker, with ultimate veto power over every song. "The thing we look for first is a great melody . . . " says Edgar. "I probably listened to thousands of songs, including repetitious or annoying ones, before (nailing) down the track list (of our Santo Domingo album)." But finding hot tracks is only the beginning. Storper and Edgar then repeatedly change the running order, edit distracting vamps, and sit in the mastering lab adjusting EQ levels until Storper pronounces the final CD ref an optimum listening experience.

"The Women of Africa CD was a nightmare," admits Storper, who put that current release through 25 different sequences and re-edited four key tracks before he felt the album was finished. In the case of French Café, a top-selling introduction to French chanson and gypsy jazz, the challenge was getting permissions. Big French companies refused access to entire catalogs of historically relevant material, and yet the CD remains a credible showcase of how French pop developed during the past century.

Making Western ears hear the familiar recontextualized inside the unfamiliar is a favorite ploy of Putumayo, whether packaging North African disco or Scottish salsa. On Women of Africa Dorothy Masuka's township-jive version of an American pop-jazz standard admirably serves this purpose, especially when sequenced behind the Cameroonian swing of Kaissa's nostalgic guitar ballad "To Ndje."

A May listening party on the Bowery for Nuevo Latino took the idea of universality one step beyond by equating the sensory impact of food with the visceral impact of music. Named after early-'90s Latin fusion cuisine, this aural stew encompasses rap, surf punk, Spanish rock, dream house, and Rasta reggae. Raul Paz's "Mulata" sounds like Leonard Cohen blind drunk in a Havana alley. Kad Achouri exploits his own Afro-Iberian heritage during a hip-hop mambo mélange crooned and rapped in Spanish and French. Despite midtempo rhythms, Nuevo Latino remains eminently danceable, putting the lie to a lingering misconception that Putumayo releases only apolitical "chill out" music.

Unifying album themes like Zydeco or South African Legends introduce listeners to key exponents of a regional genre, while CDs like Mali to Memphis or World Reggae make people rethink established categories by presenting pop material from diverse locations, hence tracing the transnational evolution of blues and reggae. Part of Jacob Edgar's mandate was to build cohesive albums around the notion of cultural diaspora, showing musical genres in constant migration. This pervasive emphasis on music in transit and transition continues to set Putumayo apart, even from other global pop purveyors. And by building its corporate identity on quality compilations more than single-artist albums, Putumayo has proven that a record label can simultaneously educate and entertain.

In 2000 Storper hired Emi Gittelman to develop a line of kid-friendly CDs and help create tomorrow's Putumayo consumer today. An ex-teacher with a graduate degree in progressive education, Gittelman drew upon the Putumayo roster to develop award-winning elementary school activity kits that teach literacy, social studies, art, and multiculturalism through music. Having pre-tested the World Playground and bilingual Latin Playground kits in cooperation with Bank Street Elementary School in New York, Gittelman now facilitates teacher training sessions around the country for educators who want to bring this curriculum into their classrooms, partially funded by profits from every Putumayo CD. Undoubtedly, some will scrutinize the content of World Playground and nitpick. Why, they may ask, is the song that introduces Israel sung by young Ethiopian Jews about their evacuation to Israel in 1991? They may also wonder if Manu Chao's French chart hit "Bongo Bong" introduces negative racial stereotypes with its titular bongo-playing monkey. But World Playground -- not unlike the rest of the Putumayo catalog -- was specifically designed to explore such sensitive questions in constructive, non-threatening, and hopefully unforgettable ways.

Published in: Village Voice, July 2, 2004