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On the top shelf of the soft-drink aisle at my local Safeway are a half-dozen flavors of a beverage line called Zotics. Marketed by the appropriately named Mistic, these drinks offer not only unusual flavors but the allure of exotic ports of call: Japan, Tibet, Brazil. Of course, these are not traditional potables from the lands they profess to represent. There’s no yak butter in the Tibetan stuff, and the Japanese Zotic is far too mild to exemplify the land where vending machines provide everything from iced coffee and fruit juices to vodka and hi-tech “sport drinks.” Still, Zotics suggest the possibility of a world beyond Coke and Pepsi.
If the globe is getting smaller, American consumer choices are growing. Coffee, tea, or chai? Short, tall, or grande? And to go with that drink, how about a copy of Music From the Tea Lands?
That disc is one of a dozen or so I’ve received from Putumayo World Music in the past year, most of them based on some sort of geographic theme. The label, which developed out of an ethnic-chic clothing company that used to have a store in Union Station, does occasionally release albums by individual acts such as African stars Miriam Makeba and Oliver Mtukudzi. Mostly, though, it’s been a musical travel agent for countries (recent releases include Mexico, Republica Dominicana, and Italian Musical Odyssey), regions (Latinas, Gypsy Caravan, Caribe! Caribe!), and musical states of mind. In addition to Music From the Tea Lands, the last category includes A Putumayo Blend: Music From the Coffee Lands and Gardens of Eden.
The Putumayo brand grew from the background music that owner Dan Storper used to play in his stores, so it’s seldom assertive and never abrasive. Like so much “world music,” it’s gently spiced easy-listening fare for people who want something different but not too different. (The label’s slogan is “guaranteed to make you feel good,” which suggests not merely an assurance of sonic smoothness but an actual tonic effect.) Even the albums that advertise themselves as dance music are far from raucous.
No single one of these discs is likely to appear on the Billboard Top 200, but they’re not really meant to stand alone. With their colorful faux-naive coversall but a few by the same artistthe albums have a collect-’em-all vibe. Indeed, that’s one of things that’s faintly disturbing about the discs: They make all non-Western, nonpop forms of music interchangeable, like a cruise that visits various Pacific ports without stopping long enough at each for passengers to distinguish one from another.
Of course, most of the music Putumayo presents is not fully non-Western nor exactly nonpop. First of all, the label is not in the business of ethnomusical discovery or research. It’s a licensing operation: Like a globetrotting latter-day Harry Smith, Putumayo compiles tracks that have previously been released by other labels, some of them American. A Putumayo compilation may include tunes rented from more venturesome imprints, such as Real World, Luaka Bop, and Knitting Factory. Second, most of the selections are three- to four-minute songs, whether contemporary crossover pop or from a folk tradition. Gardens of Eden, for example, opens with a track by Papua New Guinea’s Telek, who blends his island’s indigenous music with Anglo-Aussie soft-rock and has recorded at Abbey Road. Music From the Tea Lands’ selection from “India” is actually by crossover guitarist Sanjay Mishra, a Calcutta-bred Washingtonian who’s lived in the United States for nearly 25 years.
Like most Putumayo compilations, Gardens of Eden holds together pretty well. Indeed, the music clicks better than the concept, which promises selections from a variety of earthly paradises. This puts such upscale Shangri-Las as Hawaii, New Zealand, and Big Surwhich provided the dippiest track, of coursealongside such political or ecological danger zones as India, Brazil, and Tibet. To give the package a further whiff of paternalism, the back cover promises “information enclosed on how you can help the environment” (which turns out to mean phone numbers and Web addresses for Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund).
Clearly, this isn’t Eminem’s turf. Even U2 or Creed might be embarrassed by the earnestness of Putumayo’s pitch to middle-class cultural tourists, suburban do-gooders, and people who still crave new music but no longer want their eardrumsor their sensibilitiesbruised. One of Putumayo’s operating principles is to sell its CDs in bookstores, gift shops, and cafes, where they can reach music fans who no longer feel comfortable in record stores that cater to the 12- to 25-year-old market. You might even call Putumayo’s style “Zotics music”bland and mass-marketed with just a hint of worldliness.
As someone who recently enjoyed both the Kazue Sawai Koto Ensemble live at the Freer Gallery of Art and hard-edged new albums by Idlewild, the Living End, and 2nd Gen, I find Putumayo’s approach too soft and too safe. Yet, as a sometime middle-class cultural tourist, I don’t mind taking some of the label’s 45-minute cruises. Adapting Asian and African music to Western tastes is problematic, of course, but it’s preferable to ignoring it altogether. And if tracks such as Ujang Suryana’s “Kang Mandor” (from Tea Lands) and Ana Rita Simonka’s “Mais Filhos de Gandhi” (from Gardens) aren’t the real thing, they’re at least better than Coke or Pepsi. Mark Jenkins
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