Putumayo Delivers Latin, African Beats Worldwide

The Putumayo World Music record label is responsible for nearly 200 commercial releases around the globe. Guest host Jacki Lyden speaks with the company's founder and CEO Dan Storper about their two latest albums — Latin Beat and African Beat — and how the company fulfills its mission of delivering exceptional world music to a broad audience.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: Finally, we want to close out today's program by going global with music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHOCOLATE")

PROFETAS: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: You're hearing the sounds of the group Profetas, singing the tune "Chocolate." They're one of the many artists featured on the two latest albums from the Putumayo World Beat series. The "Latin Beat" and "African Beat" collections stay on the beat with Putumayo's mission of delivering exceptional world music to a broad audience that otherwise wouldn't hear it.

To tell us more about this music is music is Putumayo World Music's founder and CEO Dan Storper. Thanks for joining us, Dan Storper.

DAN STORPER: Well, thank you for having me on the show.

LYDEN: I see these CDs everywhere I go. Tell me, at this point how many collections have Putumayo's released?

STORPER: You know, I think I've lost count but it's getting close to 200.

LYDEN: So what is special or different about these latest two releases we've got? "Putumayo Presents "Latin Beat"" and "Putumayo Present "African Beat.""

STORPER: Well, you know, we've done a series that started, we call it the "Groove Series." And one of our best-selling albums of all time is an album called "Arabic Groove" which came out just before 9/11. It kind of struck me that somehow the music helps people rise above their problems and contemporary music can be great regardless of where it's from. And it's become one of our best-selling albums and we've explored a lot of contemporary music through the "Groove Series."

Well, we were getting ready to launch our first digital efforts as well as physical so we said, you know, what should we do if we're going to kind of announce that we're kind of finally available digitally as well as through the wonderful network of stores that we sell. And we said, you know, let's do continue and create a new series that is essentially inspired by kind of contemporary music around the world, world music meets electronica, meets R&B and other different contemporary elements, and that's what this series is about. And these are the first two releases in the series. We'll be doing a Brazilian one in January and others down the road.

LYDEN: So let's listen to some of the music. I want to start with "Latin Beat." Tell us about this first song we're about to hear.

STORPER: Well, the artist who founded the group called Charanga Cakewalk is a wonderful musician named Michael Ramos. He lives in Austin, Texas, and I've really liked his music over the years; he's been in a lot of different bands. But he started Charanga Cakewalk as a, kind of attempt to kind of go back to his roots. He is Mexican-American and I was down in Austin for an event we did with Whole Foods and he performed live. I was just so taken by how great the band was and how good the music was that I really wanted to include him on this first album "The Beat Series."

LYDEN: Let's listen to just a little bit of Charanga Cakewalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHARANGA CAKEWALK: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: Now I have to tell you, I had two people walking past my office as I was playing this and they both said, Cumbia music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STORPER: Well, at least, you know, they're pretty savvy, because a lot of people, if they see the words spelled, they'll say Kumbaya.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STORPER: But it's, you know, Cumbia is a wonderful dance music that actually began in Colombia but it spread throughout Latin America and Mexico. It's a big part of Mexican music now and it's the basis of Ranchera and a lot of other kinds of Mexican styles, and Tex-Mex music as it's sometimes called.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. We're talking about the latest releases in the Putumayo World Beat Series: "Latin Beat" and "African Beat." And we're speaking with Putumayo World Beat Music's founder and CEO Dan Storper.

Dan, you know, I think this must just be a fantastic job you have. I mean, you obviously can't collect all of these yourself, but it sounds like you do collect a lot. How do you go about making these choices?

STORPER: Well, you know, over the years I've traveled a lot. I've been to probably more than 50 countries from the days that I was designing clothing in handicrafts in the early Putumayo years to the music years. I have a couple of people that help me that are great. They sometimes - I joke that they have better jobs than I do because they get to focus on the collection of music while I'm obviously running a company and I spend a lot of my time traveling.

And some of the, you know, exciting things are to be able to discover something new that you've not been aware of before. And I think for Putumayo that's been a big part of what we've been trying to do. So I remember going to Cape Verde and South Africa and in that, you know, those trips just coming across artists that I had never heard of who oftentimes didn't, were just recording for the first time or just put out an album and you just, you know, where have they been all your life? They've, you know, they've been performing locally but never were no even in their backyard oftentimes. So, you know, part of the quest, you know, we were always looking to find great music. But we've built up a database and, you know, every album that we put out thematically somehow is an attempt to kind of create a musical package that takes you on a journey and at the end of it hopefully guaranteed to make you feel good.

LYDEN: Let's cross the ocean and talk about "African Beat," the other album that we want to talk about today. What were you going for here? You've put out a lot of music from the continent.

STORPER: Well, you know, one of the things that's always been true about Africa, and again, almost more symbolic there. You know how difficult the - many of the issues in Africa are - poverty, disease. And so, you know, the tendency for me is to always look for music that helps people rise above their daily problems. You know, and when I can feel my foot tapping and really get into a song and it changes and improves my own spirits I kind of feel it's a good thing. So Africa is known for such wonderful upbeat music.

So I, you know, feel like as much as I possibly can, I'm trying to kind of identify great artists, some of whom are on Putumayo's collection for the first time, you know, complete unknowns to me and many other people. I'm sure if you went and buy this or listen to this "African Beat" album half the people most people won't know, even people that are, you know, involved in World Music.

LYDEN: I have to confess, you could put me right in that camp. So you pick, please pick a song for us.

STORPER: It's called "Yehlisan' Umoya Ma Afrika." I think what it translates to roughly is African nation calm down. This is a song by a woman who unfortunately passed away during the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. Her name is Busi Mhlongo. And, you know, if you look at the lyrics, and we do have pretty extensive liner notes, some of the words in storyline of the song are translated. And you can see how some of the things, you know, are pretty common whether they're written in Europe or America, you know, it's about trying to find peace, equanimity, dealing with grief, lost love and found love, and all the different things that are commonplace everywhere. But this one particularly is, you know, ends with the words we've been killing each other for too long now.

LYDEN: Let's listen to a bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YEHLISAN' UMOYA MA AFRIKA")

BUSI MHLONGO: (Singing in foreign language)

LYDEN: So just to reiterate, that was the late Busi Mhlongo and she's singing "Yehlisan' Umoya Ma Afrika," and the words end: how long, just how long are we going to cry? You know, you get a chance to give such a message to people with your collections. What did we say, about 200 now?

STORPER: Almost 200. Yeah.

LYDEN: What do you hope people take from these collections, Dan Storper?

STORPER: Well, you know, I think what Putumayo has tried to do from the beginning days when I traveled to Mexico when I was 16 and on through the years, you know, my sense is I'm trying to show the more positive side of cultures around the world that really are very creative, whether it's Haiti or Africa, it doesn't matter. You know, often times handicrafts, music, food, dance, you know, film these days - lots of great cultural things are created in a lot of, you know, beautiful parts of the world that are troubled. And so, you know, one of the things I hope to do is show the more positive side of these cultures.

LYDEN: We'd love it if you'd take us out on a song. What song should we go out on?

STORPER: Well, I think, you know, we were kind of looking at the African collection, and one of the guys that I was really happy to find is a guy name Fredy Massamba and it's a song called "Zonza." And he's actually from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a troubled area. He was forced because of political reasons to move and lives in Belgium. I was, you know, struck by how here's a guy I didn't know anything about. We have a small office in South Africa and they turned me on to him and sent me a link to his music. And I feel like, you know, somehow, you know, we have the ability I think to identify people who are just, you know, exceptional artists and they're not known and this is a springboard hopefully. You know, I think, you know, whether it's now through the physical collections or with these albums which we're launching digitally now, it will be an opportunity for anyone anywhere to be able to hear the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ZONZA")

LYDEN: Dan Storper, he's the founder and CEO of Putumayo World Music and he joined us from NPR's New York bureau. The Putumayo's new "Latin Beat" and "African Beat" collections are in stores and online now.

Dan Storper, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much.

STORPER: Thank you very much for having me on your show.

LYDEN: And that's our program for today. I'm Jacki Lyden, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Tune in for more talk tomorrow.

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