Before Juan Luis Guerra launched his smooth bachata to global fame; or before the samba of Gilberto Gil’s samba traversed beyond Brazil; or Cuban son exploded out of the Caribbean in the late ‘90s, Putumayo championed world music.
The company, founded in New York by entrepreneur Dan Storper, began in the 1970s as a store of handicrafts 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 record label that has served as a benchmark for captivating sounds from all over the planet.
Through the label, genres that in the U.S. had largely been considered world music curiosities — such as bachata from the Dominican Republic, bossa nova from Brazil, Afrobeats from West Africa or bhangra from India — became better-known, as Putumayo played a big role in their global growth.
“I look back with a certain measure of pride at the fact that we’ve really introduced so many people to music that they were not familiar with — whether it be Latin, African, Caribbean, European, and more,” Storper tells Billboard Español, as he reflects on his three-decade legacy. He mentions, for example, that Carlos Santana met certain African bands through his catalog that he later ended up working with.
With a discography of more than 200 physical albums — many of which are now available via most streaming services — the pioneering label drops their first digital full-length album today (June 16), Acoustic Latino. Continuing their quest for finding treasures for those seeking a journey into the heart and soul of disparate cultures, the ten-track compilation offers songs by Mexican son band Chéjere, whose folk style from the Yucatan peninsula reflects their Afro-Cuban influences; Colombian songwriter Alejo Garía, who explores elements of jazz, folk and rock with contemporary sounds; Cuban singer Niuver, who’s influenced by trova, bossa nova, and chanson; and more.
“Putumayo’s strength is not only selecting some great songs with that human touch, but putting together a sequence to take you on a musical journey, and as we say, it’s guaranteed to make you feel good,” says Storper.
Billboard Español caught up with the label’s founder to talk about Putumayo World Music’s most memorable moments in its 30-year history.
When you reflect back on your record label’s legacy, what comes to mind?
It’s hard to imagine that it is 30 years. I look back with a certain measure of pride at the fact that we’ve really introduced so many people to music that they were not familiar with, whether it be Latin, African, Caribbean, European, and more. The Putumayo company that I founded actually started as a little retail shop in New York City in 1975. I was importing handicrafts, and a bit of clothing from Latin America. The Putumayo store started 48 years ago, and Putumayo World Music is 30 years old.
Talk to me about the origins of the Putumayo shop.
I was a Latin American studies major in college and traveled to Latin America in 1974. I studied [abroad] and decided to import handicrafts from mostly Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. I opened a little shop [called Putumayo] in 1975 in New York City selling clothing and handicrafts from Latin America. I started playing African and world music in my shops. I mixed in the music I brought back from the Andean highlands with Latin music and [artists] I like, such as Bob Dylan and others, to help create an environment. People started freaking out — not just saying, “This is great music,” but “I want to buy it. Where is it from? Where can I find it?”
How did Putumayo World Music start?
That led me to Rhino Records, who I approached on doing a compilation. I knew its co-founder Richard Foos through an organization called the Social Venture Network. In 1993, we released our first two albums [as Putumayo World Music]. It was a time when no one really knew much about international music. If you were a Latino, you might know many of the artists outside [the U.S.], but the Anglo world wasn’t familiar with a lot of the great music that was coming out of Latin America and much of the world.
We needed a package. I really didn’t like the plastic jewel case, and the digipak had just started. Record stores didn’t care for [digipaks] because they tended to get damaged. Rhino was desperately trying to talk me out of using them, but I insisted.
The covers and artwork are emblematic of the Putumayo brand. What’s the story behind them?
By another happenstance, a woman that did the interiors and window displays of our retail shops happened to have a friend who was visiting from London [named Nicola Heindl]. [The interior designer] came into my office and said, “Dan, you know that greeting card you have on your bulletin board? That’s done by my friend. She’s from England and is coming to New York in a few days. Would you like to meet her?” I had picked up this greeting card that I really liked in a London store a year before — so I said, “Of course!” We were getting ready to start the record label and I liked her art. [When I met Heindl] I told her, “How do you feel about doing the first album cover?” She did, and the people really liked it. We’ve used her art forever.
How did you envision your role when Putumayo World Music was coming to fruition?
In a way, I saw my role as being an introducer [of world music] in a nontraditional or specialty retail outlet, where we introduced people to music from artists that they wouldn’t have known about or heard on the radio. We sold a lot of CDs throughout record stores, gift shops and museum shops, where this music created a background. That was a big part of our history. I had a Dominican assistant designer for our clothing and handicraft company and she said, “Now that you’re starting this label, you should listen to Juan Luis Guerra.” Juan Luis Guerra was on the first track of the first Putumayo album [World Vocal (1993)] with [“Ojalá Que Llueva Café”]. We also included Gilberto Gil and Jorge Ben from Brazil.
What are other big highlights that you recall fondly that were essential to your label’s success?
The first album we did, Cuba, came out at the same time as the Buena Vista Social Club [documentary in 1999]. We rode that wave with that album; it was good timing. Then, the first artist we signed was Ricardo Lemvo, a Congolese artist from L.A, and we did a music video called “Mambo Yo Yo” that became popular. I remember Carlos Santana telling me it was one of his favorite songs of all time. I bumped into Carlos at the [1996 Summer] Olympics in Atlanta, and I gave him a copy of the One World (1996) album. He told me he got inspired by [“Guerrilla”] by Touré Kunda that was on that album, and invited them to participate in his Supernatural (1999) project. The song that they worked on together is “Africa Bamba.”
[In 1998] we released Cairo to Casablanca that had a track by Rachid Taha 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 track and people flipped out. It became this 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 ’90s, but to some small part, I think we played a role in that. One of the great things many have told me is that they’ve traveled to certain countries because they fell in love with its music and decided to visit.
[Another] favorite story is when Brasileiro (1999) was released, a Brazilian music expert I knew told me, “Dan, this is blowing my mind. I’m supposed to be the leading Brazilian music expert in the United States, and you’ve just put out an album [whose] first four songs and artists I’ve never heard.” That was a testament to the idea that we were searching for artists we could introduce to people who weren’t familiar with them.
How did you come across these 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 called Cumbancha. He’s [also] an ethnomusicologist at National Geographic and leads Lindblad Expeditions, [where] he is responsible for the music component of their cruises. He and I have traveled around the world, we’re naturally curious. We have a database of about 50,000 songs that we like enough to consider that grows every week. The idea that there’s great music in all parts of the world, whether it’s reggae, Latin, African…
I remember going to Costa Rica, Colombia and other places, and people constantly gave me CDs. We used to get scores of CDs in the mail before the Internet became a big thing. In that course, we learned about artists who were not mainstream yet or particularly known. We also included tracks by people like Bob Marley and the Gipsy Kings, because we really like them — but we took great pleasure in finding artists that were little-known. Then we would hear stories about these artists getting discovered through the Putumayo collection, and their songs would appear in films, TV or advertising; they would get an agent, a record deal, or start touring.
Why did you name your company Putumayo?
There’s a place called the Putumayo River that starts in the foothills of the Andes in southern Colombia, and it runs into the Brazilian Amazon, touching on the border of Ecuador and Peru. I was down there in 1991, collecting handicrafts, sitting by the side of a small stream tributary in the Putumayo Valley, and I was struck by [its] beauty. Carnival celebrations were beginning on this beautiful spring day, and indigenous people were coming in from the fields dressed in their wonderful, colorful costumes. They were all in a happy mood and about to celebrate. There were mountains in the distance, lush foliage and flying birds. I felt like everything was right with the world.
Unfortunately, as you probably have realized, Putumayo and much of Colombia for many years went into a challenging political time, with a civil war and a drug problem. The area became off limits for some time. But it really inspired me to name my company Putumayo, because of that magic moment. My sense is that music helps people rise up and survive challenging times.