Friday, March 27, 2009

Record Labels: World Music Edition

The world is full of great musicians and the amazing music they make. But when was the last time you heard a hit song that wasn’t in English? So, much of this wonderful music is unknown to most people. Those who have found music from non-English-speaking parts of the world often feel a compulsion to share that music with others. They start world music labels.

Real World Records

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Mustt Mustt


Peter Gabriel left Genesis to pursue other interests. And one of those was world music. Gabriel helped to found WOMAD, (World of Music Arts and Dance), in 1980. WOMAD was created to bring the cultures of other peoples to England, in hopes of fostering cultural exchange. As Gabriel and his cohorts thought about how to accomplish this, they came up with the idea of a music and arts festival. The WOMAD festival was a losing proposition at first. Gabriel even joined a Genesis reunion tour in 1982 to recoup the loss of his own money that he had put into the project. But WOMAD continued, and grew to the point that it is now a staple on the UK festival calendar.

By 1989, Gabriel wanted to take the next step. And that was the creation of Real World Records, to make readily available the music of the artists from the WOMAD festival. Real World artists come from all over the world. The idea of cultural exchange is reflected in the fact that many of these artists fuse styles from different parts of the world in their recordings for Real World. And nowadays, many of them make their albums at Real World Studios when they are in town for the festival.

Luaka Bop

Tom Ze: Augusta, Angelica e Consolacao


While David Byrne was still in Talking Heads, he collected music from Brazil. Most people would think of samba, but Byrne went beyond that, and found that Brazil had a wealth of fascinating regional musical styles. As he shared this music with friends, in the form of compilations he had made, he felt the need to share this music more widely. Thus, although Byrne didn’t realize it yet, Luaka Bop was born. People were actually interested, and Byrne wanted to share more of his musical discoveries. A record label was clearly the way to do this. And Luaka Bop is still David Byrne sharing his musical discoveries. The music comes from Latin America, with occasional forays to other parts of the world, and Byrne never makes the obvious choices.

Putumayo World Music

Rokia Traore: Sabali


Dan Storper founded the Putumayo clothing company in 1975. Soon their was a chain of stores to sell the clothing. And the store mangers would play the local radio stations, or the same canned music that was available to other retailers at the time. But Storper felt that his clothing line was unique, and the sounds in the stores should be too. You can guess where this is going: out into the world. Storber was already dealing with merchants from around the world for the clothing, so it wasn’t that much of a leap to get the music. And soon enough, what began as the making of compilations for in-store play turned into a record label. And the clothing stores turned into outlets to sell the music as well. Putumayo World Music started in 1993. Soon enough, Storber realized that other merchants who dealt in goods from other countries could also sell this music in their stores. And a whole new model of how to sell records was born.

To this day, Putumayo releases are still compilations. They may be surveys of the music of a particular region, or career retrospectives of single artists, but they are always repackagings of pre-existing, although not always easy to find, music. And, for world music, Putumayo song choices tend to be easy on the ear; they are often criticized for omitting an artist’s more challenging work. But that is not Putumayo’s purpose. They are popularisers. And the albums are always lovingly packaged with ample information for further exploration. And the album covers are always done by artist Nichola Heindl, giving Putumayo a distinctive look.


So, let me offer a final word of advice: if you harbor a love of unusual music, beware, or you too may soon have a record label.

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