Dan Storper began the Putumayo World Music label in 1993. He lives in New Orleans with his wife and 4 1/2 year old son, William.
Q: What aspects of your childhood influenced your career in the music industry?
Well, you know I don’t actually think that is was a natural progression into the music industry, it was more of a natural progression into travelling and finding a career that enabled me to travel. That really began when I was a kid reading the Dr. Dolittle books about the doctor that spoke to animals and traveled to Africa and other places. I was really taken with those books and that started when I was about 8 years old. Once I read those and started reading about zoologists traveling in search of animals and nature stuff I just said that’s what I want to do: I want to see the world. Also, I remember listening on a transistor ham radio to countries around and thinking how cool it was to be able to hear other languages and learn about other people. When I was sixteen my aunt and uncle invited me to join their family on a trip to Mexico so I spent a month with them travelling through Mexico and the second month working at this archeological excavation outside of Mexico City. I got hooked on the idea of starting a career travelling and importing handicrafts because I loved the crafts that were produced by the indigenous population in Mexico.
I majored in Latin American studies in college and after graduating traveled to South America to visit some of the countries I had studied. On my first day I found a wonderful wall hanging in Colombia and fell in love with the idea of just starting an import business. So it just naturally lead into that organically. The music thing started more serendipitously because I had been playing a lot of international music in my store. But it really was the combination of being unhappy with the music I was hearing in my store and hearing an African band in San Francisco. So this has been a pretty organic natural progression with a bit of serendipity mixed into it.
Q: What aspect of Putumayo do you find the most exciting?
Well, you know I think the music itself is clearly the most inspiring thing. It’s funny, when I was importing and collecting handicrafts and I started designing clothing and designing handicrafts I loved it for much of the time but there is something so powerful about how music can make you feel good, hence our slogan, “guaranteed to make you feel good”. I’ve seen my mood change in fifteen seconds simply when a song comes on that I like. I’ve also noticed as I’ve traveled that music is such a powerful influence on people in different cultures. You could have a place like Haiti that has had, even before the earthquake, nothing but political, financial, health and other kinds of problems, but has a very rich musical culture. Music has been such a powerful thing. Even with slaves, here in New Orleans where I live, Congo Square was created as a place where slaves could get together and play music. I mean it wasn’t created for that but that’s where they met and danced. Obviously there is very little that’s worse than being a slave, but Sunday’s when they gathered they could enjoy a sense of freedom and joy through music and dance.
Q: When in Putumayo’s timeline did fatherhood occur for you and how has being a dad changed your approach to your business?
Well you know it’s funny, I met a woman from New Orleans who was living in New York in 2000. We started going out, fell in love and got married, and decided to have a kid. Once our kid was on his way we said I’m not sure we want to raise him in Manhattan and I’d always been looking for places to spend more time, but I knew that I couldn’t leave my business. So we said let’s look around for a little place to go to in her hometown instead of staying in her mom’s basement and we ended up buying a house. When William, our son who is now four and a half, came she said that she’d really rather raise him and have him go to school in New Orleans and get help from her family and sisters. It was a great idea so we tried it out and it has worked out pretty well. I go back and forth to New York but I have a four and a half year old son. So it’s affected me obviously as I’m not quite the workaholic I was, I still am a workaholic, just not quite as much. I’m more careful when I travel not to go away for three to four weeks at a time.
I think now that he’s in preschool he loves music like most kids do. And we started, before he was born back in 1999 releasing our first children’s CD called World Playground and it had tremendous success. Our kids series started as a result of that album. I try a lot of the music out on my son William and he’s a good barometer of how kids will respond to songs. We have a new album called Jazz Playground that’s coming out now and I dropped a couple songs I was considering because he was bored by them. He goes to Pre-K and I thought it would be nice to have the 600 kids in his school hear a jazz band from the CD perform. We do some live events and William loves dancing and coming to them in New York and here in New Orleans. It’s recognizing that young kids in their very formative years have an interest in music and language and also getting them to learn about other cultures through music, which is core to Putumayo. All of that feels like it’s making a positive impact which is a great sense of promise for Putumayo.
Q: What activities did you love growing up that you’ve made it a point to share with your son?
It’s funny you ask, we were just in Mexico on a family vacation. My wife and I were joking about how things have evolved since we both were kids. There’s so much new stuff and techniques and things and we discovered the idea of the “kid’s club” at resorts where my son was able to play around with other kids about his age with a couple counselors. I remember thinking: A) we didn’t go to Mexico when I was four and B) he has all these tools, he has them at his school, he had them in Mexico. All these different things that are much more elaborate than what I had as a kid. I had basically building blocks. I had an erector set. I wasn’t that big into trains. I had a little cap because I pretended to be Davy Crockett. Those basic things have evolved. My son was a variety of games that seem like 50 years ahead of where I was, or probably 55 because I’m 58. But they’re based around the same ideas of kids being able to play different kids of games; combination hand/eye coordination so there’s a relationship but they’re so more evolved. Unfortunately a lot of it is just plastic junk.
But in terms of the storybook variety, we had storybooks as kids and Dr. Dolittle is too advanced for a 4 year old, but by the time he’s 7 or 8 hopefully he’ll be into it. I collect storybooks around the world when I travel and so I’ll bring back storybooks to read to him. We’re working on our own children’s storybook as well. We try to basically educate him about what’s going on in different places, teach him a little Spanish, pick up languages.
Q: Any particular storybooks that are resonating with your son?
There’s a local guy of Dutch origin named Mo Willems that has these pigeon books that have been quite popular for William for awhile. The style of the illustration is very European partly because of his Dutch background. So Mo Willems pigeon books have been popular. They are very basic. He likes the visual picture books that I’ve brought back, particularly the European: Danish, Swedish, Dutch. They have a really great visual aesthetic and simple way of presenting visual imagery for kids. So I was in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Amsterdam a couple months ago and brought back a bunch of books that he just loved.
Q: What’s next for Putumayo?
We’re working on a storybook that will be ready in 2011. We’re working on trying to expand beyond CD’s. We’re working on a combination of wall art, sticker books, coloring books, an array of different things that will allow kids to interact with the imagery and learn a little bit about the different cultures. We’re also working on our first DVD which may come out late this year, early next year. An array of different products that kids will find enjoyable.