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Putumayo Kids: A passport to global musical folklores

The label aims to push the power of music beyond the notion of simple entertainment, offering listeners an exuberant window into cultures and musical styles.

July 18, 2011|By Sophia Lee, Los Angeles Times

Rebecca Subbiah's first encounter with a Putumayo Kids CD was hearing it over the speakers at a music store where she was shopping. She instantly recognized some of the lyrics from "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" but was tickled and fascinated by the funky tune, a medley of Afrobeats sung by the late blues and soul singer Rufus Thomas.

Subbiah ended up buying the CD. Soon after, she bought several more of the company's albums online, and she's been playing them for her 3-year-old daughter, Jasmine, since she was born.

What the Winston-Salem, N.C., resident finds most attractive about the albums is that they are more than a collection of kid-friendly music; they are a passport to folklores and musical styles from across the globe.

"I think it's a cool introduction to artists from different cultures in one single CD and brand," Subbiah said. "Most of us wouldn't have a clue where to start."

That's exactly what Putumayo founder and president Dan Storper had in mind when he launched the children's division of his Putumayo World Music label in 1999.

"Our goal is to collect songs that take you on a musical journey," he said. "We want music that makes you feel good, that inspires you to be more curious about the culture and genre of that particular music."

Since its first CD, "World Playground," Putumayo Kids has been releasing albums showcasing performers and musical styles from more than 50 countries, winning critical acclaim and honors from parents groups. Its Playground series features jumpy, exuberant songs designed to stimulate kids to dance along, while the Dreamland series offers soft, lullaby-like tunes to soothe kids into relaxation.

The latest album, "Kids World Party," was released June 28 as the first in a series of even more upbeat music, with performers from Switzerland, Italy, Mexico and France, among others. To mark the occasion, the New York-based company is staging a free concert at Pasadena's Levitt Pavilion at 7 p.m. Wednesday featuring Trinidadian singer Asheba, who is heard on the new CD performing "Recess Time," a colorful jamboree about every child's favorite school period, infused with zippy calypso and reggae beats.

According to Storper, Putumayo Kids aims to push the power of music beyond the notion of simple entertainment.

"Our goal is to collect songs that take you on a musical journey," he said. "We want music that makes you feel good, that inspires you to be more curious about the culture and genre of that particular music."

In fact, that's how the name "Putumayo" came to be. Storper visited the Sibundoy Valley at the Putumayo River in Colombia about four decades ago, and he remembers how intoxicating the colors, smells, tastes and music of the culture were.

"It was just a fortuitous and serendipitous moment," Storper said. "I was watching the birds circling around the [indigenous people] in the background, the carnival and the colorful costumes, and I felt like all was right in the world. Every time I think of Putumayo, I smile a little."

Storper also remembers returning to Putumayo and being struck by the grim changes in the valley, which had been ravaged by guerilla attacks and drug cartels. But somehow, he said, that gave his company's name a deeper meaning and purpose.

"Music is often used to help people rise above their problems," Storper said. "If you look at the world, there's war, disease or all kinds of disasters, but music helps people mentally and emotionally survive such difficult times."

As the father of a 6-year-old son, Storper knows very well how grating it can be for parents and teachers to have to listen to hours of the same cloying and cheesy adolescent music.

Rebeca Shackleford is one such teacher. She keeps two collections of Putumayo Kids CDs: one for her classroom, the other at home for her own enjoyment.

"I like that it's 'real' music rather than what a lot of other companies offer, which are dumbed-down versions of kids' songs," said Shackleford, who teaches kids ages 3 to 6 at the Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. "I like that they use real instruments that have a real connection to a place or a culture."

Shackleford said she sees "a sense of peace and calm" come over the children when she plays the Dreamland series. Other times, when she plays the more upbeat Playground albums, the kids will jump up and dance, improvising their own moves.

"It's precious to observe," she said. "There is a noticeable effect [on the students] when we turn on the music."

sophia.lee@latimes.com

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