Chances are if you listen to a recording produced by Putumayo World Music, you'll want to get up and dance. "Our slogan is guaranteed to make you feel good," says Dan Storper, president and founder of the company. "It's not just about that (feeling good), but it's an important part of what I think the music from other parts of the world is able to do. It helps people rise above their daily problems."
Storper, who selects the artists and songs, and determines their sequence on each CD produced by the label, didn't set out to be a music executive. In 1975, armed with a degree in Latin American Studies, he opened a small store in New York that specialized in handicrafts and clothing imported from countries like Ecuador, Peru, Boliva and Colombia. (The name of the company comes from a river and valley in southern Colombia.)
Over the years, the business expanded. By 1991 he had seven stores selling crafts and clothing from around the world, and was designing a line of ethnic inspired garments. But he was tiring of the retail business and looking for something new. He found it in San Francisco. "One day I was walking in Golden Gate Park and heard an African group performing that really knocked my socks off." Storper recalls he was so impressed by their music that he made a vow to buy their CD and start playing it in his stores.
Storper started looking for other music that would better reflect the international environment of his Putumayo stores than the rock music that was usually played. "And I was struck by how hard it was to find."
But he eventually had four hours of music on tape that he sent away to his stores. "And I was just blown away by the response. The staff were much happier. The customers were constantly asking about the music. And I thought there is something here."
So, in 1993, he issued his first two compilation CDs, and Putumayo World Music was launched. Four years later, he sold the clothing stores to devote his full time to the music business.
In less than fifteen years, the company has sold close to 20 million CDs and released 150 recordings. Some focus on a single artist, but most are compilations with several performers from different countries.
"And they have thematic approaches. We'll do an album like 'Congo to Cuba,' showing the connection between Latin music that has made its way to Africa and back again." Not surprisingly, there have been several albums devoted to Latin music.
There have also been several devoted to Africa and to North Africa (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco), even recordings devoted to American music, like the newly released "Americana."
Other compilations have focused on music from lands that produce wine, chocolate or coffee.
Almost all of the CDs devote a portion of their proceeds to charity. "One of the goals we have is to find a connection with the areas where the music comes from," Storper says. With that in mind, the company is giving $1 from the sale of its "Radio Latino" CD to United for Colombia to help children who are victims of landmines in that country.
Proceeds from the company's "Music from the Coffee Lands" raised more than $40,000 for a group called Coffee Kids that provides education, training, health-care and micro-enterprise programs for coffee farmers in Central America and their families.
Putumayo has about 10,000 songs in its database. Dan Storper says he receives about 50 demo recordings from artists around the world every week. Through global travels and Internet research, he actively searches out musicians around the world with the help of an ethnomusicologist and always keeps his ears open for that chance encounter.
"And a lot of times when I'm traveling," he says, "people will tell me about a local artist. Or I'll hear of somebody when I turn on the TV or read the newspaper. And I'll buy local CDs."
Storper also spends a lot of time looking for unexpected outlets to sell his recordings. "People can go to a typical record store and find a Putumayo CD," he says, "but they can also go to their local health food store or café or African import store and find an interesting selection of the CDs."
The gift shop at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we caught up with Dan Storper, also features a large selection of the recordings.
Putumayo is getting world music on the airwaves through its weekly syndicated radio show, "Putumayo World Music Hour," co-hosted by Dan Storper on 130 radio stations around the world. "The idea for that came because we couldn't get a lot of airplay [on commercial radio stations in the U.S.]" A station in San Francisco suggested a monthly program, which proved so popular it quickly expanded.
In 1999, the company started a children's series of CDs called World Playground. Storper says they are working on a pilot for a children's multi-cultural television series.
"To hear a 4- or 5-year-old kid singing along with an African song and really getting the sounds and feelings very close to the original," he says, "shows you that kids are very open to understanding and learning about other cultures."
"Putamayo is really about introducing people to other cultures through music in positive ways," Storper says. He believes, short of travel, music can be the best way to get to know another culture. Through his CDs, he wants "people to really feel like they are taking a musical journey that really makes them feel good."
Dan Storper believes so strongly in the transformative power of music, that he offers the Putamayo Guarntee. "It's guaranteed to make you feel good," he says, "or you can send it back and we'll give you a refund."