Jacob Edgar

Posted in MusicTelevision on May 21, 2010


Jacob Edgar of Cumbancha, Putumayo and Music Voyagers

When I lived in New York, I would often visit Putumayo’s Upper West Side store. It was like going on vacation to India, Peru, Brazil and other far-away lands because the store was laden with everything from tunics to change purses, art to toe rings from these exotic destinations. The store’s mood was set by fantastic music, which they played and sold in the form of compilation cd’s. Their marketing strategy worked as demonstrated by the fact that Putumayo’s Caribe!Caribe!, Women of Spirit, Dreamland, Afro-Latin Party and Reggae Around the World have seen a lot of action on my own disc player.

Turns out that Jacob Edgar has been behind these Putumayo cd compilations since 1998. Cool job to compile music from the world’s great musicians, right? And, by the way, he gets to travel to many of these destinations to scope out the scene. As luck — or skill — has it, Jacob has not just 1 dream job but 3! Who says life is fair?

But we can be happy for his successes as Putumayo’s head of research and music development (dream job 1); owner of his own music label, Cumbancha (dream job 2); and, television host of “Music Voyagers” (dream job 3), because it’s his dedication to his craft that makes amazing music from around the globe accessible to us all.

Cumbancha headquarters in Vermont

As an ethnomusicologist, Jacob lives in the intersection of anthropology and music which means that his Cumbancha artists offer not only transforming music, but also incredible background stories. You’ll get a taste of it here, but you should also check out this page of Cumbancha’s website to find your own favorites.

If you’re interested in multi-tasking, you can read the q&a with Jacob while you listen to one of his recording artists. There are so many amazing ones to choose from, but I’m offering a choice of: inspiring refuges OR India’s hottest music star OR a rising Brazilian star whose music makes me want to hop the next flight to her country. Videos from The Idan Raichel Project and Rupa and the April Fishes below, as well as a sizzle reel of Jacob’s newest endeavor as host of PBS/National Geographic’s “Music Voyager. ”


Want more music? Visit international sound artist Christopher Janney or the excellent Watson Twins.

I’m interested in nature vs. nurture – did you grow up in a home where music played a big role?

I grew up in an artistic family and an artistic community. My parents, who moved us from San Francisco to Vermont when I was 9, were involved in the local art scene. My stepfather was a street performer and puppeteer with Bread and Puppet, and my mother was a potter. They had much cooler music taste than a lot of other parents I knew. Music was always on – they had a great collection. We listened to artists like Bob Marley and Babatunde Olatunji.

You still work with Putumayo while you run your own music label, Cumbancha. How did you start with Putumayo?
After I got my masters degree at UCLA, I wanted real world experience and I didn’t want to become an academic. I started working with a small importer of music that also had a small record label for international artists.

At a music industry trade conference, I met Dan Storper, the president of Putumayo. He was looking for someone to take over the research for compilation records and become the in-house expert. We hit it off and he offered me the job in 1998.

I eventually became a VP there (heading up music research and product development) and then wanted to start my own label in 2005. Fortunately, Putumayo supported my decision and asked me to continue working with them, as well.

What makes Putumayo stand out in the world music category?
What’s great about Putumayo is that it’s one of the few world music labels that reaches such a wide range of people and a pretty mainstream group of people. There are a lot of world musicians struggling to get their voices heard – it’s a genre that’s kind of ghettoized. But Putumayo has a populist philosophy – they recognized that world music is great and there’s no reason everyone wouldn’t like it.

Putumayo compilations have a consistent look and feel about them and they are distributed in non-traditional outlets like museum stores and gift shops. The exposure is great at those places.

It’s wonderful working with Putumayo because we’ve brought world music to so may people who might not otherwise hear it.

How do compilations come together?
We toss ideas around and when we hit on something we like, I take a trip to that country(s). I meet with producers, record companies and artists, as well as go to music festivals. Then I come home with a suitcase or two of music and go through it all to find the right songs for a compilation.

As you go through the music, you can’t understand all the different languages so you might not always know the meaning of the song. How do you select your music?
We look for really approachable melodic structures. It true that sometimes we miss something when we don’t understand the lyrics, but there’s also something great about not having the lyrics distracting you from the music.

There’s a cultural impact with music – there are certain sounds we relate to. Sometimes artists are submitted for our review at Putamayo who are huge stars in their own country, but their sound doesn’t necessarily have that universal appeal that we look for on the compilations.

How do you define World Music?
It’s not a great term. It’s a marketing term, an umbrella term that was coined in 1987 by record industry people to help market the music. Prior to calling it “world music,” that kind of music would be grouped as folk music or ethnic music.

“World music” means different things depending on where you are. For example, I traveled to Argentina to help Tower Records set its store up and Argentinian musicians who we consider world music artists are not considered world music artists there. And someone who we consider a world music artist, like Nana Mouskouri, is a pop star there so she’d go in the pop section. It’s a little complicated.

Can an American musician ever be considered a world musician in the US?
Yes. For example, zydeco music can be considered world music. I really consider world music to be music that has roots in a culture. The music extends beyond the sound of the moment. There are plenty of American musicians who would fall into that category. For example, I was just listening to a band called Toubab Krewe, a jam band that’s heavily influenced by African music.

Are you putting a label on Cumbancha – are you a world music label?

I’m trying not to do that. I try not to use that term, though sometimes I have no choice because it does help people get a sense of what I’m talking about.

So you might sign an American artist?
Oh yeah. For example, Cumbancha artists Rupa and the April Fishes are from San Francisco. They are as much an indie pop alternative band as they are a world music band. They use a lot of international influences and the group has a multicultural background, but they play to a wide audience.

What do you look for as an A&R person for Cumbancha – what are you looking for in an artist?
I try to find music that I personally really love. It has to resonate with me b/c I’m going to have be “married” to that person for a long time if they’re on my label. I also look for music with wide appeal – “universal music.” In other words, you don’t have to be from their country to appreciate the music they’re putting out. For instance, The Idan Raichel Project is from Israel, but has a huge following in Taiwan.

I’m also interested in the story behind the artist and what they represent in their society. In the case of Sierra Leone’s Refuge All-Stars, they came together in the refuge camps and the music they made helped them rise above their struggles.

Get a free download of “Living Stone” from the album “Rise and Shine,” Sierra Leone’s Refuge All-Stars new release on the Cumbancha label, here.

Is world music on the rise because of access through the internet?
I think we’re in a transition period between old models and future models in the music industry and we haven’t arrived at a point of clarity. There are a lot of tools, but also a lot of challenges.

While the accessibility is greater, the amount of information may be too great and overload listeners. In the past, when you walked into a record store, you could see massive collections of international music and walk out with a huge amount of stuff…and while it was also a little overwhelming, you were able to see it and feel it and it seemed a bit less inundating.

The technology tools are amazing today, but in some ways I wish I could move forward 5 years when things might be a little more figured out in this arena.

Speaking of various media, how did the television show you host, “Music Voyager,” come about?
There was a time at Putumayo when we were trying to determine if we should do a television show. But after some researching, the company chose not to pursue it. A few month later, the company got a call from a producer, Farook Singh, who had an idea to do a music and travel show. Having just spent all that time and energy on researching the tv idea and not doing it, Putumayo passed. But Farook and I kept talking about it and after a while Farouk said “why don’t you be the host of the show?”

He’d never even met me, but we did a screen test in New York. Instead of just doing a “talking head” type of screen test, I had the camera man follow me to all my favorite hole-in-the-wall places, cool record shops and great venues to hear music while I just riffed. They loved it.

At that point the broadcast partner was National Geographic. After we shot our first shows in India, PBS came on board. (National Geographic broadcasts outside of the US, PBS broadcasts it in the US; check listings here)

We also have other broadcast partners all over the world, like Brazil and Jamaica.

So you’ve become an accidental international superstar!
I was making trips like the kind you see on the show anyway, so it’s a really great extension.

What’s the connecting thread among musicians, no matter where they live?
They bond through music. All musicians are interested in music no matter where it originates.

Proust Questionnaire:

My favorite snack is:  Ramen – you can do anything to ramen, it’s like a blank piece of paper…you can make mexican ramen, korean ramen, etc.
Don’t ask me to: define world music
I would put into a time capsule my:  Toothpaste collection – I have a collection of toothpaste from around the world
My favorite place is:   Rio
When I have a creative block I:  Eat
My favorite mantra is:  Try it, you might like it