Interview: Q&A with Dan Storper – Navigating 30 Years of Putumayo; From the Source to the Mouth of the River of Music (October 2023)

Words by Marco Canepari

It’s been 30 years since they began delighting our ears and stimulating our brains with their always tasteful selections, presented in the form of compilations and playlists. Now, it’s time to give credit where it’s due and delve into an engaging chat to uncover more about the vibrant musical world of Putumayo.

In 1975, Dan Storper opened a concept store in New York dedicated to world handicrafts and clothing, laying the groundwork for what has easily become, since 1993, the most feel-good music catalogue out there. Over these thirty years, Putumayo hasn’t merely shared beats from every corner of the world; they’ve also served as our guide to understanding the beautiful tapestry of global cultural expressions.

In fact, we’ve come a long way from the times when Seinfeld‘s Elaine and Kramer used to visit the Putumayo shop in New York. Today, the label, now based in New Orleans, has released more than 400 albums and has celebrated the world and its musicians, spreading love for world music to both kids and grown-ups alike.

There was no best way to gain insight into the project than reaching out to Dan Storper, and it was our pleasure and honour to ask him a few questions about his 30-year-and-counting ongoing project, “the place where the river [of music] begins”…

Putumayo World Music is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Can you tell us about the journey from the early days of your retail shop in New York to the establishment of Putumayo as a record label specialising in music from around the world?

Well, it’s been pretty remarkable to have had several careers. I guess you could say it all began when I was 16 and was invited to travel with my uncle, aunt and their family in Mexico. That summer, I fell in love with Latin American handicrafts, indigenous cultures and history. After majoring in Latin American Studies in college, I travelled to South America to visit the countries I’d studied. In a village called Sibundoy in the beautiful Putumayo River valley in southern Colombia, I decided to start a handicraft import business named named after the valley. In 1975, I opened a tiny Latin import store in New York City. In the early years, I would play a variety of international music to help create an atmosphere of escaping the hustle and bustle of the NY city streets. But, as the stores expanded and we began to design and wholesale crafts and clothing to other boutiques, I lost the close connection to the stores.

One day, in 1991, when I was returning from Indonesia, I stopped in San Francisco to break the trip and go to a textile exhibit at a museum in Golden Gate Park. Walking through the park, I entered a clearing where a wonderful afro-pop group called Kotoja was performing in front of an ecstatic crowd. It was a magic moment and a picture of harmony and beauty.

The next week, after returning to NYC, I stopped into one of my stores when they were playing inappropriate metal music. I made a decision then to return to my roots and seek out great international music to play in the stores. Sending around mixed tapes to the stores resulted in an explosion of interest in the music. I then decided to try to put together a couple of compilations to offer in the stores that sold our clothing and handicrafts and approached Richard Foos, the co-founder of Rhino Records, to collaborate. That’s how we began and released our first two albums in April, 1993.

Over the past three decades, Putumayo has released nearly 400 CDs and sold more than 35 million albums. How did you discover and select the diverse array of musicians from over 100 countries featured on these compilations?

In the beginning, before the internet, it was a daunting task to find great music in American record stores. But, I travelled and found songs I thought people would love and that the stores could play without getting tired of the music. After a few years, I hired Jacob Edgar, a talented ethnomusicologist, who continues to listen to thousands of songs so I can listen to hundreds for each collection. Ultimately, I make the final decision and create the sequence which is an important and time-consuming process.

Putumayo’s compilations have introduced many people to music from various cultures, traditions and regions. What has been the most rewarding part of sharing these musical treasures with the world?

I think there are a few things. We’ve provided exposure to hundreds of artists, many of whom have been able to develop an international following, get recording deals and perform around the world. I also feel the music has helped people better understand and appreciate other cultures. And, perhaps when people tell me they not only discovered artists they now follow but have also travelled to the countries the music comes from, that is very gratifying. 

The label’s latest release, Acoustic Europe by Putumayo was published only a few days ago. Can you provide some insights into the inspiration behind this recent release and what listeners can expect from it?

We’ve been collecting a lot of music for our digital-only series. The three full digital-only albums we’ve released, Acoustic Europe, African Acoustic and Acoustic Latino, are a result of our continuing to search to identify great artists and songs.

Putumayo Discovery, the digital-only label, debuted with its first full-length digital-only album, Acoustic Latino, in mid-June. How does this initiative align with Putumayo’s mission, and what unique elements can listeners find in this album?

Since these are digital-only collections, they don’t have the full package with liner notes and can’t be purchased as physical releases. So, I do miss that aspect although we just released a new Bossa Nova CD. But, because it’s digital we can now release more music and are planning to release two full albums per month. One can still come to our website and read about the artists and songs, see photos and music videos. People can download the digital albums on our site via Bandcamp and iTunes or stream them on Apple Music, Spotify and other services. We’re also recreating playlists of many of our classic older albums on YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify and Pandora.

In addition to the physical albums, Putumayo has embraced the digital era with streaming services and playlists. How has the label adapted to these changes in the music industry, and what impact has it had on reaching a wider audience?

I guess you can say that I was dragged kicking and screaming into the modern digital era. We were very late to embrace downloads and streaming. But, now that it’s part of my daily life, I recognise the opportunity to bring more great music and artists to the world.

Over the years, Putumayo has collaborated with various artists and organised tours and events, contributing to the global appreciation of world music. Can you share some memorable moments and experiences from these collaborations?

There were so many wonderful moments. Thinking back to the unforgettable concerts by Ricardo Lemvo, Oliver Mtukudzi, Habib Koite, Sam Mangwana, Mary Black, Dougie MacLean and many others brings back wonderful memories. So many highlights. I feel blessed to have gotten to know and present so many exceptional artists.

Putumayo’s artful CD compilations often include informative booklets with background information on artists and cultures. How important is this educational element, and what role has it played in fostering a deeper appreciation of world music among listeners?

It’s been an essential part of our effort. We’ve worked hard over the years to present educational information both for our adult and children’s CDs. The kids CDs are still being used in classrooms.

Beyond music, Putumayo has expanded into other initiatives, such as distributing multicultural children’s books and art & photography cards. How do these efforts align with Putumayo’s mission and contribute to a broader cultural understanding?

Going back to my importing handicrafts, I always wanted to find a way to travel the world and introduce people to other cultures through their extraordinary crafts and music. The kids books and cultural cards continued and broadened that effort. However, we now are in the process of phasing out the books and cards to refocus our efforts more on music.

With the 30th anniversary celebrations underway, what are some of the events and activities planned to mark this milestone, and how do you envision the future of Putumayo Records beyond this landmark year?

Well, we’ve produced a 30th anniversary playlist and I’ve been traveling around the country doing radio and press interviews and visiting our retail supporters. We are working on plans for the next generation of Putumayo music and are planning a download subscription series and more.

Putumayo has been a pioneer in distributing CDs to non-traditional outlets, significantly expanding the market for world music. How do you see the role of the label evolving in the context of the evolving music industry and the rise of digital platforms?

Well, it’s changed a lot as the CD format has declined although I’m surprised that we’re still selling quite a few through non-traditional and traditional outlets. Given the wave of digital music, I wasn’t expecting to still be selling CDs. However, as mentioned, I’ve been making the adjustment and recognise the potential of digital music to continue the Putumayo initiatives.

Given the challenges the world is facing today, what message would you like to convey through Putumayo’s music and its continued commitment to showcasing the diversity and unity of cultures worldwide?

Despite the political and economic struggles in so much of the world, it’s critical to recognise the contributions of challenged countries around the world from Haiti to Zimbabwe. Music, dance and art help people rise above their daily problems and give them strength to pursue change. Folk and soul music provided the soundtrack for the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. Many of these “freedom songs” are still etched in our minds. I’d like to see a new revival of the anti-war and civil rights movements and hopefully, music will help lead the way.


Treat your ears to and follow Putumayo’s playlists…