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Putumayo: The Place Where the Traditional and the Contemporary Meet

Tod Smith By

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The fundamental approach we've taken is to try to introduce people to the cultures and music from around the world through compilations. —Dan Storper
Sometimes, things just feel right. As I wait for Putumayo World Music CEO Dan Storper, I have a moment to enjoy the ambience of the Sound Café, one of the few coffee shops that have not succumbed to the corporate culture cultivated by larger, more plentiful chains. Open French-doors provide just the right level of street sounds and an unusually warm (even for New Orleans) December breeze wanders inside. Photographs taken by New Orleans photographer Christopher Porche-West on his recent trip to Cuba (not Havana, but the lesser known Santiago), line the walls and somehow accentuate what Putumayo seems to stand for - an introduction to cultures other than our own. Sometimes, things just feel right.
In many ways, Dan Storper and Putumayo are cultural ambassadors with a mission to bring the world "music guaranteed to make you feel good." From the contemporary music of the South Pacific Islands, to the entrancing rhythms of the Middle East, Putumayo's impressive catalog and growth as a cultural icon can be traced back to Storper's love of travel, a love cultivated at an early age.
"I was always interested in travel and I was very lucky that my aunt and uncle - my uncle was a doctor and my aunt was an anthropologist - are kind of archaeologists/anthropologists and they would travel a lot. Through them I used to hear stories about places in Latin America and other parts of the world that they traveled to," Storper said.
"And one day, my uncle was invited in 1967 - I was 16 - to lecture in Mexico City, and he said, 'you know you'd probably have a fun time, why don't you join the family, we're going to go to Mexico and we're going to spend a month traveling around,' so, I went and I was thrilled and had an incredible time with them. And they're real travelers - they would go into the backcountry and find the most interesting Indian villages, and stay in those different places. So it was an experience that was incredible and made me decide to become a Latin American studies major in college."

Upon graduating from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, Storper found his way back to Latin America.

"After I graduated from college, with a Latin American studies degree, I thought I needed to visit Latin America. So I worked for about a year to earn money so I could take a trip down and in 1974 I took a trip to Columbia, Ecuador and Peru and again decided that this was for me and I had to find a way of traveling while having a business."

That desire led to Storper importing folk art and crafts, selling through galleries, shops and eventually his own retail stores.

"I found a store in New York City - a little hole in the wall - 200 square foot shop - that was pretty cheap rent and opened up and started selling crafts. It was a tough go for the first couple of years, but it allowed me to keep going back to South America and eventually (I) started traveling to places like Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Indonesia. And then because clothing sold more than folk art and the crafts, I started importing and designing clothing. I used to bring back albums from the Andes that I would play as part of the background (for the stores), but I would mix it in with music that I liked - people like Van Morrison, James Taylor and Bob Dylan - so you'd have Indian folk music one moment, then you'd have Dylan and Van Morrison and Bonnie Raitt and people like that."

In 1991, changes in the business climate and a general desire to do something different, led Storper to re-evaluate his life, "I was on this rat race and I wasn't enjoying it."

Then a walk through a San Francisco park set him on a journey that continues to this day.

Storper recalls, "I was walking in this park in San Francisco when I heard this African group called Kotoja. They were playing as I was on my way to an Indonesian art exhibit at the Young Museum in San Francisco. I heard maybe two songs - it was the very end of their set. I thought it was incredible how upbeat and different the music was and how it had brought two hundred different types of people from different backgrounds together. So at that moment I decided to basically start paying more attention to the types of music that were playing in my retail stores."

"As luck would have it, I walked in to one of my stores and they were playing a kind of heavy metal music and I said, man, this is just so inappropriate for a place trying to create an international environment and I had thought about it over the years - how the music is so important if you want to create a positive space for yourself and for customers - but I'd lost touch with it. So, I said I'm going to go into record stores and start buying stuff, and looking around to see what's there."

In 1991, there were no listening stations in record stores, so Storper found himself buying a lot of music based upon the cover art, what looked interesting and past experiences with the artists.

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