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The World Vibes of Putumayo

By Brian L. Knight


Putumayo, named after a river valley in Columbia, had humble beginnings in 1975 as a small Manhattan clothing store. The store featured the clothing and crafts of South America which store founder Dan Storper found during his trips to the Southern Hemisphere. Once the items arrived in New York City, they skyrocketed in popularity amongst the New Yorkers.


Storper remained strictly in the clothing business until 1991 when he heard some fantastic African music during a 1991 visit to San Francisco. After hearing the exciting polyrhythms of the band Kotoja, Storper realized that his store was not playing the music appropriate to his offered merchandise. This epiphany started out with Storper creating ethnic mix tapes for his customers to listen to but within three years, Putumayo evolved into a record label and Storper was releasing CDs that covered the music from all around the world.


In addition to its extensive catalog, Putumayo has also promoted a few memorable concert events. For its inaugural concert in 1993, the company hosted Mary Black and Dougie MacLean at New York’s Town Hall. The following year, Putumayo presented the First New York Singer-Songwriter Festival at Carnegie Hall, which featured Freedy Johnston, Rory Block, Dougie MacLean, and Laura Love. 1996 was a banner year as Putumayo produced a Johnny Clegg & Juluka concert at the Olympics and the One World Festival at the Washington Monument.


There are presently over fifty titles in the Putumayo catalog that cover everything from the Brazilian sounds of Chico Cesar to a collection of Celtic sounds. As we enter the “real” millennium and into the party spirit of Carnival and Mardi Gras, let us take a look at the “party” music of the Putumayo label. Put the diverse musical acts of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and the Montreal Jazz Festival and add the cultures and sounds of the carnivals of Rio Di Janeiro, Tobago, and Trinidad as well as Mardi Gras of New Orleans, and you may get the gist of the music found on these Putumayo releases.


The music of New Orleans is well represented with the discs Zydeco, Louisiana Gumbo and Cajun. The Zydeco and Cajun compilations celebrate the combination of French and African culture with accordion/fiddle laden sounds of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Balfa Toujours, Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis, Rosie Ledet and Buckwheat Zydeco. If one heads over to Fais Do Do stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at any time over the last thirty years and chances are, and you may have heard one of the acts found on these discs. The Louisiana Gumbo compilation brings out some the R&B influence that New Orleans is so famous for – James Booker, Eddie Bo and Snooks Eaglin. Any evening early celebration would not be the same without the piano heavy sounds of these artists.


Beyond the Crescent City and the Mississippi Delta, the world celebration id heard on the discs Carnival, Caribbean party, Afro-Latin and New World Party. Caribbean party introduces acts from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Barbados, Jamaica, Monserrat and Haiti while Afro-Latin primarily highlights the sounds of Cuba. These discs easily show that a New York City night club is not the only place in the world where people can dance and celebrate. Even better, the musicians of these islands accomplish this feel good spirit organically. My personal favorites of these collections arrive with Carnival, which is chock full of celebratory vibes while New World Party is a look at the new grooves at the turn of the millennium.


Beyond the promotion of universal music, Putumayo also dedicates much of its time and effort to child education and non-profit organizations. Over the years, the company has donated its proceeds to Artists For a New South Africa (ANSA), Bayahonda Cultural Foundation, Concern Worldwide, OXFAM AMERICA and the National Coalition for the Homeless. Putumayo has also developed a curriculum for elementary students called World Playground: A Musical Adventure For Kids. The self contained education kit contains music from 11 different countries, a world map, teacher's interdisciplinary curriculum and a class set of student booklets.


One cannot go wrong with any one of these compilations. One may not know the artists by name but after listening to the opening notes of any of these CDs, the music will immediately provide an aura of familiarity, comfortableness and feel good spirit. This music is not bound by race, generation, religion or politics. It is music for all people to enjoy. Give them a try!


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