For almost 40 years, Putumayo have been regularly releasing album collections, staking out their own global-music territory, both intertwined and separate from the rest of the music industry. After all this time, the label are no stranger to Afro-Cuban music but continue to add some twists for their listeners.
The origin of Putumayo is very much the story of one man’s journey. Dan Storper traveled to South America post-college and fell in love with the various cultures he explored, so much so that he set up a store in downtown Manhattan that imported and sold handicrafts and clothes from South America and elsewhere. To set the mood in his colorful stores, Storper eventually began to play world music, and customers often asked about what he was playing. In 1993, he began to produce collections with distinctively bright folk-art-reminiscent covers and sold them in his stores and untraditional venues such as museum gift shops. Eventually, Putumayo Music took off, outlasting the stores where they first appeared.
In addition to their covers, the collections also have a similar ambiance—an easygoing sunny vibe that never gets too edgy or harsh – the musical equivalent of a sweet, slightly intoxicating cocktail. It’s easy to dismiss the musical libations as the equivalent of a neon-colored drink topped with a paper umbrella, but generally, the ingredients are good ones. The cherry-picked artists are a mix of below-the-radar regional musicians as well as some who have garnered notice outside their homelands.
The latest compilation is not the first where Putumayo has delved into the music that grew from the mix of cultures that incubated in Cuba when enslaved Africans melded their music with that of Europe and the Caribbean’s indigenous people. While this one is called Afro-Cubano, the tracks are from various countries across Africa and the Americas. The songs feature the characteristic clave syncopated beat that drives the music, such as mambo and salsa, but the diverse collection shows how that hip-grabbing swing has been weaved into many other genres.
The music originated in the arrival of Africans during the slave trade, but also circled back to Africa in the mid-20th century with the spread of radio and albums in west Africa. At that time, the music was embraced like a long-lost cousin; adopted and adapted by African musicians. The collection’s pan-national makeup shows several facets of that journey.
Afro-Cubano begins with Cameroon’s Manu Dibango, who early on learned the lessons of Congolese rumba, but went on to blaze his own path, most notably with the international hit “Soul Makossa”. His “Bessoka” here is a spare, slow-dance groove that mixes his deep Barry White-like whispering with restrained piano and marimba flourishes for a seductive, sexy opening to the collection. The pace picks up with “Dur Di Kutubel” by Eneida Marta of the former Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau who now lives in Lisbon. Her slightly smoky vocals glide over a gently percolating groove that brings to mind the music of her father’s Cape Verde homeland.
Rey Cabrera is the sole Cuba-based musician on the album and plays the languid, lesser-known rural music of the island; music that was popularized by Eliades Ochoa, himself a bit of an outlier among the musicians of the Havana-centric Buena Vista Social Club. Another tune in the country style of Cuba is the syrupy swing of the sad “Adios Guajira (Adios, Country Girl)” performed by Cuban-born, Montreal-based Jesus Alejandro.
Several island nations are represented in this balmy collection. Uziel Sanca hails from Cape Verde, home of the international star Cesaria Evora. Here, Sanca plays “Sociedade Parasita” in the upbeat coladeira style, with gently shuffling rhythms, whispering percussion, and floating melodies from an accordion, flute, and Sanca’s own sweet voice.
One lost gem included here is “Boracho” from Sonora Paramarera, a band from Suriname that hasn’t released an album since the 1970s. The mid-tempo tune shambles along with a beat similar to a mambo-era chachacha, but instead of a Palladium dancehall big band’s intensity, it has the informal party vibe of a small combo tossing chunks of riffs back and forth to keep things interesting for dancers and listeners alike.
Afro-Cubano doesn’t feature many of the usual suspects in the world of salsa or mambo. Probably the closest track to conventional salsa is from an atypical messenger: Ricardo Lemvo, a Congo-raised singer who is based in Los Angeles and has had some dancefloor hits over the years. Closing the album, Lemvo’s song, “N’dona Ponte”, features his longtime band, Makina Loca, and runs through its paces as smoothly and powerfully as an Indy car cruising on its victory lap. Lemvo’s slightly husky voice dances over the brass, a silvery guitar influenced by Congolese soukous, and percolating percussion – it’s hot but no one seems to be breaking a sweat.
Some hard-core salseros and world-music purists may be dismissive of Putumayo’s touristic approach, but they have cleverly introduced many artists and genres to new listeners for decades and livened up any number of gatherings. The label’s latest continues the breezy, tropical tour; pouring new ingredients into its familiar aural elixir.