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Jacob Edgar: Sounds Tracker

By Aarti Virani

Oct 26, 2012

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As the founder of the world music label Cumbancha and host of the PBS travel series Music Voyager, Edgar crisscrosses the globe in search of artists to record.

NAME: Jacob Edgar
AGE: 43
BORN IN: San Francisco, California
RESIDES IN: Charlotte, Vermont
TIME SPENT ON THE ROAD: 4 to 6 months a year
PLACES VISITED IN THE LAST YEAR: Denmark, Israel, Jamaica, 14 countries in western and southern Africa, and Nashville, Tennessee 

You started your own record label, Cumbancha, in 2006. How did you get interested in world music?
When I was a teenager, I spent a year as an exchange student in Reykjavik, Iceland. I went with a choir to what was then the Soviet Union. I had my guitar with me and found that music was the gateway to meeting people. After completing my master’s degree in ethnomusicology at UCLA, I felt the academic side was too stodgy. I was more interested in energized, real-world stuff. So in the early 1990s, I started working for a small French company that exported music from Africa and France to the United States. Eventually, I met Dan Storper, founder of the Putumayo world music label. He asked me to be his researcher. From there I launched Cumbancha. Finding the next Bob Marley has been my goal ever since.


What have been some of your most surprising discoveries?
Earlier this year, I was a guest speaker on a National Geographic Explorer cruise along the West African coast. We stopped at São Tomé and Príncipe, two islands that make up one nation. I’d heard of only one musical group, Africa Negra, from that country. My local contact took me to a “record store”—basically a man with a computer who burns CDs for you—and I found gem after gem of amazing artists and songs. The musicians I spoke with rattled off the names of about 20 or 30 rhythms, reflecting all the various cultural forces that have converged on those islands.

When you’re in a country for the first time, how do you find good local music?
I don’t waste time. If I don’t have a local contact, I just start talking to people on the street. Typically, I have the name of a local musician that I use as an icebreaker. When you mention a familiar artist, people’s defenses usually drop. We’ll often start by talking about politics. Sometimes, they’ll invite me to their homes. Eventually, I’ll get to a place—a record store or a local label’s office—where I can find the music I’m looking for. If you dig far and hard enough, you’ll find that old calypso singer who lives in a shack.


Is there an artist you are particularly enthusiastic about right now?
I’m working with a really interesting 32-year-old musician, Bombino, from Niger. He is Tuareg, a seminomadic Saharan people, and plays electric guitar. Bombino’s music may remind Western listeners of John Lee Hooker’s blues and Jimi Hendrix’s or Led Zeppelin’s psychedelic rock. But it’s actually more rooted in the folk rhythms and melodies of the Tuareg people. Pop groups like the Dave Matthews Band and Arcade Fire have asked him to open for them. He’s the sort of artist I’m always looking for, someone with multigenerational appeal who is also cool.

What can music tell you about a place and its people?
Music is an audio representation of history. It reflects the different influences in a country. Some of them can be recent, like hip-hop or rock, and some can stretch back thousands of years. If you know how to recognize those influences, you can actually learn a lot about what happened in a culture’s history. Hindustani classical music from North India, for instance, was heavily influenced by the 12th-century Moghul conquerors who arrived in the region from Central Asia. And like any art, some of the greatest music in the world comes from suffering. I just spent a lot of time in countries such as Cape Verde that were very involved in the slave trade. But from the crucible of that horrible history have come musical forms like salsa and jazz. A

Photo by Brad Paris. This appeared in the November/December 2012 issue. Read about Jacob Edgar’s favorite places in the world to hear live music.  

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