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Soundbites: Putumayo Embraces the Digital World


Published February 22, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Cumbancha recording artists Lakou Mizik - COURTESY
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  • Cumbancha recording artists Lakou Mizik

Human beings just love to categorize things. Eighty percent of human history is just nerds roaming around doing inventories, from grain storage to family lineage to Dave Matthews Band set lists (you sick fucks). Did I make that stat up? Sure. But I'm not wrong, either. We can't help ourselves.

Maybe the most egregious example of this tendency is our obsession with genre in music. I've made my sour grapes known on this subject before — I tend to think genre is an outdated, pointless and, in some cases, damaging construct. And there is no genre tag I dislike more than "world music." I mean, honestly, what does that mean? If it's not made by a Western artist, it's, uh, from the world? Ya think? Can you imagine calling dumplings "world food"?

My opinion on this is hardly new or isolated. In 1999, former Talking Heads front man David Byrne wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called "I Hate World Music" — which, considering that he founded Luaka Bop (a so-called world music label), should tell you how strongly he feels about the term. Even musicians who often find themselves lumped into the category chafe against it.

Sarathy Korwar - COURTESY
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  • Sarathy Korwar

"It only helps reinforce the narrative that other people's music is less evolved and important than your own and doesn't deserve a more nuanced approach," said Indian jazz drummer and producer Sarathy Korwar in a 2019 interview in the Guardian.

The term wasn't created to relegate thousands of musical styles to one amorphous and ill-fitting genre. Many record labels and music festivals that trade in "world music" were founded with the noble goal of spreading music in all its forms into Western markets. Some, like Peter Gabriel's WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival, founded in the early 1980s, actually predated the term "world music."

While the tag carries some negative connotations, I try to remind myself that the vast majority of world music labels are actually doing a great service to Western listeners by introducing us to sounds we otherwise probably would not have heard. And one of those labels has offices right here in Charlotte.

Putumayo maintains an office in the barn of Jacob Edgar, who works as a consultant for the company on top of running his own world music label and booking agency, Cumbancha. The labels often work in tandem, with many of the artists who appear on Cumbancha releases first showing up on Putumayo compilations.

"When I started Putumayo almost 30 years ago, the music industry was very different than it is today," label founder Dan Storper wrote in an email.

One change to which Storper has had to adapt is the growing dominance of digital releases.

"While I stubbornly resisted the digital age," he admitted, "in recent years, I've embraced it." He recognizes, he wrote, "that the curation Putumayo is known for is more important than ever in the vast and overwhelming ocean of digital music."

So the label has gone digital. The shift began with the Putumayo Discovery series, digital-only releases of singles and EPs from artists who have rarely, if ever, released their music online. The 12th installment of the EP series, a compilation called Reggae World 2, drops on March 3.

Dan Storper - COURTESY
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  • Dan Storper

"We're also pleased that, after two years, Putumayo's official profile has more followers on Spotify than any other world music label," Storper enthused about the 100,000-plus followers the label now boasts. "And more than most record labels of any genre, for that matter."

Putumayo posts new-release playlists every Friday on just about every streaming service out there. It also maintains a robust YouTube channel, with music videos featuring artists from Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia and even North America.

The label recently released Feels Like Home: Songs From the Sonoran Borderlands, a collection of Mexican songs curated by Storper and Linda Ronstadt. It's a soundtrack companion to Ronstadt's memoir about growing up near the Sonoran Desert in California.

I'm never going to warm up to the term "world music." But the importance of the work that labels such as Putumayo do, spreading the gospel of music to every corner of the world, cannot be understated. Genre is a construct, but music is universal.