Various Artists

Putumayo Presents: A Taste of Putumayo

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Putumayo Music was created in 1993, an offshoot of the Putumayo Clothing Company, which was founded in 1975 by Dan Storper. Storper and label co-founder Michael Kraus began releasing a series of mellow, light groove CDs that spotlighted the smoother side of international music, each album sporting a bright, folk-themed cover by artist Nicola Heindl. With a solid marketing plan and branded packaging and musical content, Putumayo releases were soon ubiquitous in music stores, coffeehouses, and gift and new age stores everywhere. There's little doubt that the Putumayo line is the first exposure for many listeners to the vast wealth of world music, but the overwhelmingly mellow, low-key musical choices included on these collections give off an alarmingly generic feel, as if music everywhere on the globe had fallen into the chillout sphere, and the various Putumayo releases are surprisingly similar, even though they feature a wide variety of musicians from diverse locales. A Taste of Putumayo, which combines two previous albums, Music from the Coffee Lands and Music from the Chocolate Lands, with an eight-track Putumayo catalog sampler in a single box set, is typical of the label's product. The coffee collection draws sides from musicians based in Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America (because that's where most of the world's coffee comes from), while the chocolate album is less focused, featuring musicians from Africa and the Caribbean, but also musicians from Europe and the U.S., regions whose only apparent connection to the chocolate theme is that most of the world's chocolate is consumed there. So what of the music itself? It's hard to argue with the choice of musicians. Zimbabwe's great Thomas Mapfumo is here, as is Uganda's Samite, East L.A.'s Ozomatli, and the Jamaican jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin, as well as several other amazing groups and players. None of them, of course, have anything at all to do with coffee or chocolate specifically, or even with each other. The tracks selected to represent these artists simply fit the brand, falling to the bright, easy, mellow, and unruffled side of the spectrum. That's all well and fine. It's what Putumayo is known for providing. That's the brand. But for a series that promotes diversity, there is a surprising lack of it on a musical level, making the constant gloss of easy pleasantness in these releases somehow disturbing, as if the whole of the world's musicians had suddenly decided to all dress in the same color.

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