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Distinctive music, with art to match

It's toe-tapping, finger-snapping, hip-swinging, thought-provoking music, and in today's name-driven music market, it's a complete oddity: a successful record label known for a type of music rather than its roster of talent. More particularly, it's known for its distinctive CD covers.

The Putumayo World Music label is a familiar sight from the many coffee shops, bookstores, and trendy boutiques that have been the company's primary outlets since 1993. The same British artist, Nicola Heindl, is responsible for the more than 100 album covers during that time.

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The choice to stick with a single artist from Day One has given the label its unique signature - colorful, realistic, faux-primitive line drawings that tickle the eye as they tell the story of a particular album's music. Ms. Heindl says she researches the music and the countries represented on each album before she starts a new painting. She says she looks for visual cues that will draw people into the music.

"I endeavor to present each particular culture or musical genre in an accurate and aesthetic way," says Heindl. The artist makes a conscious effort to create different covers but knows that she has developed a signature look that has become established. "I'm sure this has its pros and cons, but I cannot reinvent my work completely each time," she says.

Putumayo began back in 1975 as a clothing company created to introduce shoppers to the cultures of the world. Founder Dan Storper ultimately sold the clothing line - famously referenced in a Seinfeld episode - in 1997 to focus on the then four-year-old music company. Putumayo has several divisions including one for children and travel DVDs. Its music also can be heard on a syndicated radio show called "Putumayo World Music Hour."

Since that time, the little label that almost always comes packaged with happy, joyful faces has become what many music critics have called a pioneer in developing the nontraditional music market. "We seek songs with universal appeal," says Mr. Storper. "Generally they have appealing melodies, beautiful vocals, and are well recorded."

But he hopes the CDs will accomplish something beyond entertainment. "Great music helps connect people in a positive way to other cultures, and helps overcome the negative images we see in the news: poverty, disease, war and natural disasters," he says.

An engaging visual invitation to something both new and old is an important part of the company's image, says Storper. He says Heindl visually depicts the balance between the fresh and the timeless that he tries to capture in each album. "Her folkloric style reflects, as our CDs do, the connection between the traditional and the contemporary," says Storper.

One world, many voices

Here are a few recommendations for the newcomer to the Putumayo world of music:

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Swing Around the World (2005)

And you thought only Americans and Europeans knew how to swing! This fantastic compilation tracks the swing beat around the globe, from Zimbabwe to Greece to Hawaii. We dare you to stay in your seat!

Putumayo Kids presents French Playground (2005)

Another new release focusing on French-language music. Includes songs from France, Quebec, Haiti, and beyond. Designed for younger listeners, but charming and eminently listenable for all ages, as are all the 'Kids' albums.

Afro-Latin Party (2005)

This dance-crazy album is part of the "party" albums that collect rhythms and sounds from the nightlife of countries around the globe. This collection has an unlikely mix of songs from the US, Jamaica, Cuba, Martinique, and Congo, among others. Again, fantastically danceable.

One World (1996)

A Putumayo classic, assembling new and established stars from just about everywhere - Russia, Cameroon, Zaire, Nigeria, Senegal, France, Scotland, Benin. You might not like every tune, but the album is worth a listen if for no other reason than to appreciate just how universal music really is, no matter what the language.