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Putumayo & the Politics of Meaning

June 10, 2009

Putumayo Records is a record label based in New York City specializing in a style known as “world music”. The goal of the label is to provide “upbeat, melodic compilations of great international music that are “guaranteed to make you feel good!’ Each of the albums is organized around a theme. The creation of this theme involves a utilization of power on behalf of Putumayo to link together geographically and culturally disparate artists, styles, and songs.


One example that seems pertinent to this blog is entitled “Women of the World.” Putumayo describes this record in this way;

On March 8,women all over the world celebrate International Women’s Day. A national holiday in many countries and commemorated by the United Nations, International Women’s Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history.Though often divided by national boundaries and by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, this day allows women everywhere to look back on a tradition of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development. As a tribute to this tradition, Putumayo World Music presents an album that literally sings its praises. Women of the World: Acoustic is an exploration of acoustic music by some of the world’s leading female artists.

I am conflicted by this statement. First, the idea of being divided by factors of identity such as “ethnic, linguistic, cultural. . . differences” implies a problem, one that is solved through looking back on a “tradition of struggle”. Treating difference as a problem seems contrary to the aims of the anti-racist, post-colonials feminest movements aims. Also, the claim that the linking factor of women all over the world is their “tradition of struggle” has a certain unifying effect, implying that they have struggled in the same way or for the same cause. It is also dangerous to think of struggle as a tradition, as I feel feminism is often painted as a movement only of activism and struggle, which excludes the reality that feminists can have a lot of fun and relaxation.

I would like all of your thoughts about this, and plan to continue writing on the idea of world music, and especially “Women of the World” compilations in a mini-series.

  1. Carrie permalink
    June 11, 2009 10:14 am

    I’ve read the record description a few times, and I don’t think they mean that “ethnic, linguistic, cultural…differences” are the problem. I also don’t think they mean that the shared experience of gender is a problem. It sounds more like, “Hey, let’s celebrate our differences, ’cause we’re all WOMEN, and we have this shared experience of being women, and that’s super!” Which, to a point, is fine.

    I do agree with you, though, that talking about the “tradition of struggle,” as if there is some monolithic unifying experience of all women, everywhere, is problematic. I definitely take issue with the belief that there’s one common “female experience.” It’s the problem I have with the folks who run MichFest, who use their excuse of a “common girlhood” to exclude transwomen. But I digress…

  2. Alison permalink
    June 11, 2009 1:08 pm

    I’m a big fan of Putamayo and own a few of their albums. Musically, I think they’re great.

    I interpret the “Women of the World” album to be simply a celebration of women, and in particular, female musicians, and this really might just boil down to semantics. Whoever wrote that description might not have even registered how “a tribute to this tradition” might be interpreted, you never know. Ultimately, I think they have a positive goal: to celebrate women and music created by women. And I have no problem with that!

    I agree with what Carrie said about the shared experiences of women. I don’t think they were trying to imply that these differences are a problem. To me, it feels more like a “celebrate diversity!” theme.

    I like that you’ll be writing about world music–I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts!

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