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A Subjective Guide to World Music Labels (Page 2)

Putumayo & Cumbancha

If you have bought organic groceries, incense, or hiking boots anytime in the last several years, you're probably familiar with Putumayo CDs and their colorful display stands, always adorned with Nicola Heindi's cheerful artwork. For people like me, who came up in the indie rock paradigm of obscurity and indirection, the sheer welcoming ubiquity of this music can be off-putting. But I got over it, and my life is all the better for it.


Putumayo was founded in 1993 as an offshoot of a clothing company of the same name. It spread the music deep and wide through innovative distribution to boutiques, co-ops, and other businesses catering to what the company calls "Cultural Creatives," affluent North Americans and Europeans who are globally minded and in search of inspiration outside of their mother culture. But the real hook is the company's objective:

[To provide] upbeat and melodic compilations of great international music characterized by the company's motto: "guaranteed to make you feel good!"


After 14 years and scores of releases from five continents, the label has been remarkably consistent in this mission. And therein lies the rub… On the one hand, the compilations are always safe and reliable. On the other, they're always safe and reliable. More adventurous music fans will want to range further afield, which is a good thing and, presumably, part of Putamayo's master plan.


Most importantly, Putumayo collections are the best single entry point for a curious listener. They're also great for kids. Keynote releases like World Reggae, Women of the World, Acoustic Brazil, and the recent Latin Jazz do not disappoint and will give you several options for individual artists to explore next. In fact, in 2006 Putumayo launched a sister label, Cumbancha, to highlight some of its most popular individual artists.


World Music Network (Rough Guides)

Rough Guides, the U.K. publisher of travel guides and reference books, launched its World Music Network label in 1994 with a companion CD to a Rough Guide book. Its surprising success has lead to a burgeoning catalogue of more than 180 compilation CD releases to date, smartly curated and simply but tastefully packaged. Unlike many labels, WMN provides detailed track-by-track liner notes, as well as discographies of the featured artists. The label aims to inform the listener in a manner that is "intelligent and cultural, but not academic or flippant."


A real strength of the Rough Guides is that they keep an ear out for the cultural and historical continuity of a region or style. Thus, the Rough Guides to Cajun, Zydeco, Salsa, and Dub offer examples from throughout the music's history and development, and they attempt to give examples of all aspects and variations of a style. The resulting sonic cross-section gives listeners a good, if rough, idea of where to go next. The Rough Guide to Highlife convinced me that I needed to track down earlier examples of West African nightclub music from the 1960s and '70s, while the Rough Guide to Sufi Music sent me digging up oud solos.


If there is a downside to this diverse presentation, it's that some of the compilations are less consistent than others and less solid than collections released by more focused labels. But, since this is a starting place, there's really no better way to get a view on what a particular corner of World Music has to offer.


These are some of the most prominent purveyors of World Music, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, more small, local, and specialty labels that are dedicated to making available the sounds of the human race. I wanted to share these five with you, not only because of their range and accessibility, but also because they have the resources and the vision to offset the exploitation that World Music artists have long endured at the hands of the record industry. The change accredited to these labels is significant: the Rough Guides have put out joint releases with Amnesty International and OXFAM; Putumayo contributes to over 30 non-profits including the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, Global Exchange, and Mercy Corps; and Real World's Peter Gabriel is working with Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu, and Jimmy Carter to found a global non-profit think tank called The Elders. These labels, at their best, embody a rare convergence of commerce, aesthetic, and compassion. They are, thus, in some ways, the indiest of the indies and worth your time and attention.

-- Robert Mead, 02/27/2008