Dan Storper: Musical missionary

The thriving label Putumayo grew from a tiny Mexican crafts shop. Michael Church says one man's zeal was the key factor
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The Independent Culture

The distinctively branded CDs are on sale everywhere, from café counters, museums and zoos to the specialist world music store Sterns, from Harrods to the Royal Festival Hall. These days people know what they look like - boldly decorated by a children's Chagall, opening up like little cardboard books - and millions have been sold. But it's easy to forget how revolutionary the first Putumayo CD was when it appeared in 1994, partly because the underlying concept has blazed a trail now followed by many other labels. Their progenitor, Dan Storper, did not set out to sell records,but he's now released well over 100 CDs.

The distinctively branded CDs are on sale everywhere, from café counters, museums and zoos to the specialist world music store Sterns, from Harrods to the Royal Festival Hall. These days people know what they look like - boldly decorated by a children's Chagall, opening up like little cardboard books - and millions have been sold. But it's easy to forget how revolutionary the first Putumayo CD was when it appeared in 1994, partly because the underlying concept has blazed a trail now followed by many other labels. Their progenitor, Dan Storper, did not set out to sell records,but he's now released well over 100 CDs.

Ever since reading Dr Dolittle as a child, he has been interested in travel; his teenage passion was finding remote stations on his radio. Spending a school vacation in Mexico, he fell in love with the crafts and clothes and, after doing Latin-American studies, he decided to importthem. His first store was in Manhattan - "a tiny shop, like a college dorm room crossed with a Guatemalan bazaar, full of clothes from all over Latin America. And I played music - Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt mixed with records I'd brought back. But I never really thought about that music."

He did well, opened more stores, made sure there was music playing and decided to put together his own compilation tapes. "But the first day one of those tapes went in, I got a call from a store manager who said, 'I can't believe this. The moment we put this tape in, the place was transformed. People are coming up asking what these songs are, and where can they find them.'

"That was in 1991, when listening stations didn't exist, so you couldn't check out a record before buying it. And I thought, how could anyone decide what to buy?"

As a member - along with Anita Roddick of Body Shop - of a non-profit organisation called the Social Venture Network, he made contact with the boss of Rhino Records, whose specialisation was in R&B compilations, and together they decided to test the water with some world CDs.

Thus it was that The Best of World Music: World Vocal - kicking off with Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil, Miriam Makeba - hit the market. "The deal was, I would put the package together and write the liner notes, and they would license it, manufacture it, and sell it to record stores. Meanwhile, I would sell it to what we called the non-traditional market - book stores, clothes shops, cafés, museums."

But while Storper's market fell on the products with delight, Rhino sold so few - through the standard outlets - that they lost interest, and pulled out of the partnership, leaving Storper to carry the can, which he did with increasing success. He met international distributors and he found an artist - the British painter Nicola Heindl - whose style matched his vision, and engaged her to do his covers. He began putting his records on in restaurants where they wouldn't even be sold: he just wanted them to be heard. "This is what can happen," he says. "Our general manager heard Julian Avalos performing in a trio in Grand Central Station, bought his CD, and licensed a track for our Coffee Lands CD. Then someone in Hollywood heard it and loved it, and included him as a singer and actor in a major motion picture."

Storper's cleverness lay in the concept his records embodied. Who would have thought Music from the Coffee Lands would have sold more than 200,000 copies? A Tea Lands one followed - with a recipe for Indian chai in its liner notes - reinforcing the point that listeners liked following musical links from Japan to Tatarstan to Indonesia to Iran.

Storper found that other journeys could sell as well: African Odyssey, which united Manecas Costa, Oliver Mtukudzi, and Habib Koite; Cairo to Casablanca joining Algeria's Khaled and Rachid Taha to Morocco's Hassan Hakmoun; then Congo to Cuba, and Mali to Memphis. A Jewish Odyssey gave the concept historical top-spin.

New Orleans is his latest release, which brings us into Rough Guides territory. How does Storper see the labels' rivalry? "Our CDs are about listening to an album from start to finish, whereas from most other compilation labels you feel the journey goes all over the map... I want our musical journeys to be pure pleasure, so that people say, 'What else can we learn about this place?'"

Putumayo's philosophy excludes any hard-core ethnomusicology - most Rough Guides have a modicum - but in the great battle for listeners they are fighting on the same side. Storper inveighs against the media bias on world music. "If you pulled 100 people off the streets and first played them three or four tracks from Top 40 radio, then three or four tracks of great world music, and said 'Which do you prefer?' more people would choose the world music. But they're not hearing it on the radio, so it's not getting its proper chance." In Storper, at least it's got a high-octane evangelist.

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