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21 août 2008

Q&A: Dan Storper, founder of Putumayo World Music

Posted: August 11, 2008 by Brad Frenette/National Post

Putumayo is marking its 15-year anniversary this year, has carved a niche in the genre of world music by presenting unique and varied volumes of international music – with geographic diversity ranging from Africa to Asia and styles as contrasting as Quebecois folk music and bossa nova.

The founding of the label, however, was incidental. In the ‘70s, Dan Storper, Putumayo’s founder and CEO, turned a small business focused on importing handiwork from Latin America into a chain of international craft and clothing retail stores based in New York City. It was his search for music to play in his stores, coupled with a serendipitous encounter with an African band in a park in San Francisco, that led to the founding of the ubiquitous record label. Dan Storper recently came to Toronto as part of Putumayo’s 15th anniversary tour and discussed the label’s beginnings and took a turn doing some ethnomusical word association.

Q: How did your travels influence the founding of Putumayo?

My aunt and uncle, who were very influential in my life, were big travelers. They would tell stories about their travels and when I was 16, they invited me to join them on a trip to Mexico. My aunt and uncle had been collecting folk art for years. They had a lot of interesting crafts in their house and when I went to the remote villages and markets, I found so many handicrafts that I thought maybe I could start a business importing handicrafts. 1974 was when I started shipping crafts back and opened up a little shop in New York City called Putumayo which was mostly crafts from Latin America.

On a trip back from Indonesia, I stopped in San Francisco, I was walking through a park on my way to an art exhibit and I heard this really great African group called Kotoja. The band was great and there were hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds having a good time in the park. They didn’t have a CD, and I couldn’t find it when I got back to New York but it struck me that there could be opportunities to sell that music. A week later, I walked into one of my stores and they were playing thrash metal and I said this is not appropriate for an international craft and clothing store, so I went looking in the world music section. I picked 4 hours of music and produced a tape and sent them to the stores (at that time I had seven). And that afternoon I started getting calls from the managers. We put the tapes on and within a minute or two we had people coming up asking ‘what’s this?’ I began to realize there was a big disconnect between great music that was out there whether it was music that was in their own backyard or African and Latin or Caribbean music.

Q: How do you find music for Putumayo’s compilations?

For the first five years, I was still designing clothing. So I’d find myself in France, looking for clothing, and in places like France where African and Lebanese and Arabic (influences) are part of the scene, I would spend extra time, just looking for music. After a while, I couldn’t keep up with it. There’s so much music out there – I went to WOMAD, and festivals here, there and everywhere. I just couldn’t keep up with it. It’s gone from me all by myself to me and 3 other people traveling, doing internet searches, and gathering a database of over 10,000 songs that we like.

Q: Aside from the compilations, you’ve also from time to time represented individual artists. Why has Putumayo you shied away from that?

I’ve found that we weren’t able to do justice to the artist. I say it all the time: doing a compilation is like dating. Signing an artist is like getting married. I’ve got a wife, and a business.

Q: So it was a bit like bigamy?

Exactly. It wasn’t like I felt guilty about the bigamy part of it, but I didn’t have the capacity to do it well. Miriam Makeba - who we had an album with - was nominated for a Grammy and I had to kind of arrange all of this stuff, because there was no one else to do it. Even if she would have won, I probably wouldn’t have cared because of the rigmarole. It’s a different world.

Q: Do you see your role similar to a DJ programming a set list with each of the compilations you release?

What I want to do is put together a musical and cultural journey that is going to be enjoyable - almost akin to a trip. Yes, to some extent it’s curatorial but I also don’t trust my own instincts 100%. I’ll get 10-12 people around the office and play the songs, and they have to pass muster among this group.

Q: What’s been your greatest find, musically?

One of the things that’s particularly interesting to me is when I’m looking at our top-selling albums. In my wildest dreams, would I ever have thought that Arabic Groove - this album of contemporary Arabic music – would be our second best-seller of all time.

I grew up in the 60s listening to people like The Four Tops, The Temptations and melodic, upbeat music. So I’m really drawn to this place where blues and R&B and jazz come together in world music – Brazilian, Cape Verdian, African, Latin.

Q: It’s a unique strategy that Putumayo employs, in that your discs can be found in arts & craft stores, and places that don’t sell any other music.

I discovered a lot of music in retail stores. I felt like as a retailer, I needed music to play and if I could offer something that looked like a gift rather than a traditional jewel case I could offer retailers music that they could play and music that they could sell.

We have a slogan – ‘Guaranteed to Make You Feel Good’. Which means that if you don’t love the CD and it doesn’t make you feel good, return it to us and we’ll give you a full refund.

Q: Has anyone taken you up on that?

When I had my stores, I had that guarantee posted and I sold 18,000 CDs over the course of a number of years and I think we got 2 back. And in my case, they guy thought it was too upbeat. I call it the spirit of Bob Marley. You don’t find too many people who dislike Bob Marley’s music. So the idea is find songs that are universal – identify that melodic centre – a well-crafted song, well-performed, well-recorded, beautiful voice – chances are people will like it. It’s inexpensive therapy.

Q: I’m going to throw out a couple of countries and please tell me the first artist that pops into your head.


Q: Ireland?

That’s interesting because the first artist that popped in my head is a friend of mine named Paul Brady who is one of my favourites, but who has never appeared on a Putumayo compilation. I’m not as much a fan of traditional Celtic music, more of contemporary Celtic music.

Q: Egypt?

That’s an interesting one. We just had a discussion about why it is that certain countries seem to not have as much music out there in the world. If you asked me Algeria, I’d name a million people but Egypt (Long pause). Ali Hassan Kuban. Mohammed Mounir and Amr Diab.

Q: South Africa?

There are so many. I would pick my personal favourite, Johnny Clegg. However it’s more Johnny Clegg with Juluka, the earlier Johnny Clegg. And from a live perspective, some of my favourite concerts have been Hugh Masekela and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. South Africa is a place where you still have a lot of great living legends – Miriam Makeba, Vusi Mahlasela. Like Brazil, it has a wealth of music.

Q: Alright then - Brazil?

Wow. I’m working on a Brazil television special and I just put together a list of 30 artists I went on the special. But in terms of the legends, I’d say Jorge Ben. Chico Buarque. I tried to narrow the list down to ten and I couldn’t get it below 30.

Q: Last one: Canada?

Hmm. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. I’m in the process of dealing with a Quebec album and got a lot more connected with the music of Quebec. I’ve recognized that there is a world in Canada – like there is in the States – of traditional music. There are great artists in almost every category in Canada.

Q: What are your thoughts on the blending of world and pop music?

It’s endless now how much collaboration is going on. I keep waiting for the world to wake up to the fact that there is so much great world music out there.

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