The mission statement of the Putumayo World Music record label has always included the desire to bring the listener on a journey, via the sounds of other cultures. For founder and CEO Dan Storper, as he celebrates the label’s 20th anniversary this year, his own personal journey has led to New Orleans. For founder and CEO Dan Storper, as he celebrates the label’s 20th anniversary this year, his own personal journey has led to New Orleans.
“I’ve been in New Orleans since 2004,” he said. “I just cannot believe it’s been this long. It’s somehow bizarre. And Putumayo being 20 feels like a lifetime.”
Storper started the Putumayo company in New York City in 1975, as a handicraft and clothing company selling items that caught his eye as he traveled. He started the record label offshoot in 1993, and four years later sold the clothing business to focus fully on the music, putting together compilation albums with a distinctive, bright cover-art style that showcased music from around the world: Asia, Africa, Latin America. It was right around the time the label was started that Storper began visiting New Orleans regularly, for Jazz Fest – though it was back in New York that what would become his permanent connection to the city solidified. Stopping by the Putumayo store in Soho in the late ‘90s one day to pick up a package, he met the shop’s new manager, Amy Sevante. Sevante had grown up in Mid-City and Broadmoor, and in 2002, with Kermit Ruffins playing the wedding reception, she would become his wife.
The couple began visiting New Orleans frequently, and after a while, bought a home in the Marigny. (“So we could stop staying in her mom’s basement,” Storper said.)
“I started to think maybe I could make it work, living mostly in New Orleans and just commuting up to New York, and that’s what happened,” he said. Putumayo’s main office remains up North, and Storper still travels frequently back and forth. The New Orleans office currently employs a staff of three.
“We’re looking to move our distribution and some operational stuff, possibly, to New Orleans in the fall,” Storper said. “I’d like to create more of a nexus in New Orleans, partly because I love it, and partly because I don’t want to keep flying everywhere. When people ask where I live, I say I live on JetBlue.”
Not too long after Storper had set up his home and business base in New Orleans in 2004, Hurricane Katrina hit. Putumayo had released its first two compilations focusing on Louisiana music a few years earlier — “Zydeco,” which featured veterans Boozoo Chavis and Clifton Chenier alongside rising stars like Chris Ardoin and Rosie Ledet, and “Louisiana Gumbo,” a mix of blues, soul and R&B — and following the storm, the label donated a portion of those albums’ proceeds to nonprofits like the Tipitina’s Foundation and Habitat for Humanity. In November 2005, the label, along with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, co-hosted a free concert titled “Down By The Riverside: A Concert of Thanksgiving” that featured John Boutte, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Jon Cleary and others.
“There’s no question that New Orleans has had a great influence on me,” Storper said. “Before we moved down, we had released ‘Zydeco’ and ‘Louisiana Gumbo,’ the first Louisiana albums. They did well, and we wanted to do more.” The ‘New Orleans’ album, released in 2005, featured photographs from the Michael P. Smith collection, a recipe from Paul Prudhomme and liner notes by the local musicologist Baty Landis. Since then, there’s also been a brass collection, New Orleans Christmas and children’s albums, and a compilation dedicated to the sounds of Ruffins.
New Orleans is a sweet spot for the intersection of interesting music, with its deep ties to the Caribbean, Cuba, Africa, Latin America and Haiti, as well as its proximity to the heartland of rural American folk and blues. The success of the Louisiana albums, as well as Storper’s own tastes — which has begun to veer toward an exploration of American roots music — encouraged Storper to open the label up to sounds from the States. Several Putumayo jazz and blues-themed albums came out in the mid-2000s; more recently, Storper has been exploring American folk and singer-songwriter sounds.
Over 20 years, technology has tremendously enhanced the label’s ability to scour the world for music. Where Storper once beat the trails looking for obscure tapes, he can now get mp3s e-mailed from artists, or listen to full discographies online at the click of a trackpad. But there’s still no substitute for the impact of a live performance, discovered by serendipity — and New Orleans’ thriving live music community has impacted the label’s direction in its own way.
“For instance, I just happened to be at Three Muses about six months ago and saw Luke Winslow King, and I was just struck by the way he combined jazz and different retro, rootsy flavors with singer-songwriter folk music,” he said. Winslow King’s song “You Don’t Know Better Than Me” leads off Putumayo’s latest release, “Acoustic America.” Also at Three Muses, Storper heard the accordionist Norbert Slama for the first time, playing hot-club jazz with French guitarist Raphael Bas; the performance inspired the Putumayo album “Vintage France.” Local music fans, including Tulane University Gulf South Center director Joel Dinerstein and Wild Lotus Yoga owner and kirtan musician Sean Johnson have consulted extensively on albums.
“There’s no question that since I moved to New Orleans, I’ve become a huge fan of just the entire mix of contemporary music that comes out of the city,” Storper said. “And because New Orleans is such a draw, it’s kind of brought in people who are music lovers of different types. It’s not just a source of great music, but a source of people with great taste, who love music and have great collections.”