CHARLOTTE — Defining in simple terms what Jacob Edgar does for a living is no easy task. Sure, you could call him an ethnomusicologist, which he is, by training, earning a master’s degree in the unique field from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1994.
“But most people don’t know what that is,” he said with a laugh. “So I have a hard time explaining it to them.” Or they assume he’s in academia, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I guess you could say I’m a global talent scout and a music producer,” said Edgar, who founded music production and promotion company Cumbancha. “I’m just always on the hunt for exceptional music around the world, and exploring what music reveals about us as humans and our role in the world.”
Edgar, 48, who moved with his family to Plainfield from San Francisco when he was 9, is “a leading figure on the world music scene,” as Vermont Life described him in a 2013 feature. He’s been the primary music researcher for New York City-based Putumayo World Music for nearly 20 years, scouring the globe to discover artists and songs to include on the leading label’s ubiquitous compilation albums — over 35 million of which have been sold since the pioneering company’s inception 24 years ago.
Edgar has also been the host of the television series, “Music Voyager,” since 2009. The music and travel program, distributed by American Public Television and broadcast on PBS stations nationwide, follows his adventures as he travels the globe in search of compelling musical experiences.
“Music is our excuse for going to a place,” said Edgar of the show. “And then, when we get there, we end up trying the food, we end up exploring the history and the culture, and then having all kinds of adventures doing silly things. It’s really fun.”
He has also been a regular guest lecturer for the past five years for National Geographic Expeditions, most recently sailing the waters of the North Sea on the National Geographic Orion ship. Edgar describes them as “very high-end tours,” on which he serves as a “music specialist,” joining biologists, scientists, photographers and writers. He talks about the music from the different countries they’re visiting, in addition to curating music events and putting on concerts.
“One of the cool things about music, and one of the things I like about these trips, is no matter where you go, music always plays an important role in people’s daily lives,” he said. “There are always stories to be told, and there are always interesting artists in every country.”
In 2006, he left New York City with his family and moved to an 1830s farmhouse in Charlotte, where he founded a music company called Cumbancha — “a Cuban word of West African derivation that refers to an impromptu party or musical jam session,” according to the company website.
“I kept coming across artists that I thought were either exceptionally talented or unique or deserved some support, and Putumayo didn’t have the outlet for that,” said Edgar of his inspiration for Cumbancha. “So I decided to start my own company to help kind of develop international talent in a more focused way.”
Dan Storper, the founder and CEO of Putumayo, liked Edgar’s idea for a new label, which he felt would complement Putumayo’s mission. The two worked out a partnership where Edgar serves as a consultant for Putumayo, while “Putumayo helped get Cumbancha started with some early investment and distribution and infrastructure support,” according to Edgar, “which really played a key role in getting the company going in the early days.”
“Jacob has endless curiosity and great taste,” said Storper, via email. “I can’t imagine having developed Putumayo without him. I’ve long believed in Jacob and Cumbancha is, in some sense, an extension of Putumayo.
“Jacob has a very good ear, is a hard worker and networker, all of which are important in promoting artists in today’s world,” added Storper. “He also is young enough to understand and work with new technology to help get the word out.”
The Charlotte location also serves as a Putumayo office, with workspace for Adam Sullivan, the company’s production and promotions coordinator who helps with product development for new compilation albums and with maintaining the massive database of music Edgar has culled from his travels. “We’ve got about 40,000 CDs here,” said Edgar, describing it as “probably one of the biggest world music CD collections.”
Edgar is also involved in a new travel initiative at Putumayo, co-curating and leading two trips to Havana, Cuba, in November. “You get to follow me into Cuba, and explore music and culture from that country,” said Edgar. “And basically piggy-back with me on what my usual adventures are like in other countries.”
Cumbancha was started at the beginning of a digital revolution in music, which presented challenges early on as major retailers like Tower Records were going out of business. “It was a really tough environment to get started in,” said Edgar. “But it’s also been a very exciting and interesting environment, because new technology has completely transformed the nature of the business, and it’s providing new tools and opportunities for artists.”
Edgar called Cumbancha “more of a music company” than a record label. “We explore a very holistic approach to music,” he said. “For all of the artists that we work with, we look at all of the possible revenue streams. And it can be selling physical product, like we traditionally have done. But it’s also digital. It’s also licensing for film, television and advertising. It’s also collecting music publishing, which is the songwriter portion of earnings for a song. It’s placement in in-store playlists, and things like that that generate revenue.”
Touring has been important.
“So we’ve started a booking agency to book artists on tour,” said Edgar. “And even just kind of general management and consulting, and helping artists navigate … the new ways of communicating directly with fans, and the new ways of building infrastructure outside of the mainstream media, which is really where this music lies. … On one hand, it’s been really challenging and really tough, and on the other hand it’s been really exciting and interesting. And I feel like we’ve developed some really good skills and techniques along the way.”
Cumbancha has certainly had an impact on Vermont, bringing artists from around the world to record at the Charlotte studio and perform at Vermont venues like Higher Ground and Goddard College’s Haybarn Theatre, among others.
“What I found — not only in Vermont, but around the world — is that one passionate person can make all the difference in terms of building a community around a certain type of music,” said Edgar. “And that’s really what we’ve tried to do here.”
“Almost all of the artists that I work with have made a foothold here,” he said. Daby Touré, a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from West Africa, has been warmly received in Vermont and now splits his time between the Green Mountain State and Montreal. Another Cumbancha act, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, consider Vermont its second home.
Vermont musicians have also benefitted from Cumbancha’s international connections. Trombonist Elizabeth Frascoia, who grew up in Woodstock, toured with Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. And Burlington drummer Corey Wilhelm now tours with Nigerian singer-guitar sensation Bombino, another Cumbancha artist.
“That Vermont connection has been really great,” said Edgar. “It’s just so supportive. When artists come here to record, people will cook for them, they’ll house them, they’ll transport them. They really embrace them. And it becomes a catalyzing force for the community.”
Edgar wishes he could spend more time at home in Vermont — “the more you travel, the more you realize how special it truly is,” he said — and admits it can be hard on his wife and two daughters, whom he credits for supporting his passion.
“I live and have made a career out of a very unique and unusual passion,” he said. “I’ve always believed that your passion will lead you down the right path, and opportunities will present themselves that you never could have predicted. And I think that my kids get to see that in my life, and recognize that the world is really totally open to them and what they want to do.”
Because he’s been away so much in recent years, Edgar said his main focus with Cumbancha is more about working with existing artists than finding new ones. “We’ve been releasing a lot of singles, a lot of remixes and those types of things. And experimenting with building buzz on digital platforms.
Learn more about Cumbancha at www.cumbancha.com.