The first time I came across an album of Putumayo was in a small lunch cafe on a side street off the Haarlem market square. It was one of those cafes that takes great pride in their organic coffee, vitamin infused smoothies and vegetarian sandwiches.
Each time I walked through the door to order a honey coated goat cheese bagel, I was not only greeted by the smiling owner, but the exotic and foreign music that was streaming through the obscured speakers. It took me some time before I inquired about what kind of music it was. Perhaps because every time a new CD was playing. But after a while I started to recognise the similar beats and ambiance that swept through the venue like a tour de force. Commonalities yet polar as music was ranging from Italian salsa to Finnish tango, mixed with Arabic lyrics and sub-Saharan beats. Confused? No, it’s nothing short of lyrically breathtaking.
When I found out the secret, a small alternative record label called Putumayo, I knew I had discovered the holy grail. I immediately asked if I could make some copies, and the ones I couldn’t, I would buy at the Fair Trade shop a few hundred meters down the road. I would put on Putumayo whatever the occasion and naturally Putumayo compilations would fill the ever diminishing space on my iPod (yes it was before iPhones).
Around the same time of my discovery I started another love affair, the one of salsa. This lead me to my 24/7 existence in the world of Latin. I literally ate, breathed and slept salsa, and my dreams – both day and night – where consumed by nightly escapes to Havana, Cali and Rio. There I would trawl the streets, like an urban explorer, and occasionally my gaze would fall on a local. The nocturnal aftermath is not so hard to imagine.
A year later, or so I believe, my dream would get a strange real life reproduction, and curiously Putumayo plays a role in this tale too! It was a rather unhappy time. A time of loss, confusion and to some extent sheer desperation. It was a time of falling out of love, perhaps mostly with myself. I will not go into the details for respects to others, and to avoid any personal repercussions of my own. But suffice to say, during a trip to a Mediterranean island, I had a very similar encounter to the ones that had plagued my dreams…
My friend and I were sitting at the hotel restaurant, talking about life and business in an ever eclectic mix. Two men were attending the tables. One, slightly older, in his mid 30’s caught our attention. Days went by and I must admit, my friend and I, would position ourselves at the section where this waiter would serve. One evening, as we were looking for a convenient place at the neighbouring bar, in search of a grand finale nightcap, the waiter and his friends offered us to join them. One drink succeeded another, and not before long, the first deep rosy light of the sun started to emerge. For an unexplainable, yet perfectly clear reason, we all decided to go swimming at one of the deserted rocky beaches. It became the defining moment, when I embarked on an affair. The moral aspects set aside (it became the pivotal nail in the coffin containing a broken marriage), it didn’t so much transform me, but more so set me free. I was suddenly that exotic creature blessed with wings, free to fly in any direction and to any place.
My lover, who was Serbian, had the most amazing voice. With his accent ridden, yet clear and melodic, he would take me to different places on the island and tell me about stories from his home country. Stories of lust, greed, love, beauty, money, violence and revenge. His one-person audience was in total awe. I think I fell in love. Or at least I told him so. Numerous times.
His apartment was an untidy affair, the kind of poetic, almost cinematic disorder you would find watching a French film. The only thing is, this wasn’t an apartment in the St Germain district but a concrete 10 stories building off the local marina. In his bedroom, with a suitably stained mattress covered by a crumpled sheet, stood a single chair, a guitar and a desk with a computer. When he was gone, I would score his enormous database of music and to my utter (but pleasant) surprise found several compilations of Putumayo. It dawned on me that the music, so often being played in the background during our nocturnal, intimate explorations, came from these playlists.
I recall reading the book City of God, by Paulo Lins, whilst listening to Cores by Da Lata. It captured the very essence of what my eyes and mind were consuming from this second-hand paper back I’d picked up at a book stall.
My love affair only lasted for a mere two months. A summer fling, where love turned to madness, and desire to despair. I knew I had to end it and so, on an October morning, a friend sent a ticket for Milano, Malpenza. It became my escape. On that morning, feeling sad, lonely yet excited about a new adventure I was about to embark upon, I put on my iPod and looped the song which will forever be associated with this time of my life; Hanina. I tucked a sweater underneath my neck, closed my eyes and listened intently to the haunting vocals that emerged through the headphones. An intense sadness overcame me but I was too tired to fight it. Instead I fell asleep.