A new world music label finds a home at Charles Eller Studios
Chuck Eller is worried that people think he's closed his business. Rumors began swirling two years ago, after a possession-purging yard sale and the acquisition of a sizeable motor coach, followed by a 3-and-a-half-month "vision quest" journey with wife Ava. Then there was that purchase of land in San Pancho, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and the fact that his Charlotte sound-recording studio and the home attached to it were on the market. The properties were taken off for a while, but then suddenly sold. Partly.
Now the Ellers are living in their Winnebago, currently parked at a New Haven campground. In his studio Eller, along with longtime engineer Lane Gibson, is still producing musical projects, mostly local. But a new partner named Jacob Edgar, until recently the vice president of A&R at Putumayo, has settled his family into the adjacent house and given the business a new global twist.
"I can understand why people are confused," Eller, 54, concedes. "But even when I've been gone, there's been something going on in here every day."
That's an understatement. The venerable Charles Eller Studios, located for the past 14 years in a yellow-clapboard former farmhouse on a dirt road with Green Mountain vistas, is very much open, and as busy as ever. Its past credits include some 500 CDs, never mind earlier LPs, recorded and/or mastered for a huge array of folk, rock and classical music clients. The future appears to promise more of the same, but with international artists thrown into the mix, courtesy of Edgar's new Vermont-based world-music label, Cumbancha.
The story behind all these changes, and the merging of Eller and Edgar's parallel paths, is one of amazing serendipity.
Actually, Jacob Edgar's life story so far -- he turns 37 this month -- reads like a series of right-time-right-place events. His stepfather, a puppeteer who worked with Bread and Puppet and other performing-arts groups, moved the family to Vermont when Edgar was 9. While growing up in Plainfield, attending school at Twinfield and U-32, he quickly developed musical and international interests. Edgar was a counselor and trumpet player for Circus Smirkus and taught music at the Governor's Institute on the Arts. He went to the former Soviet Union with Project Harmony, and spent a year in Reykjavik, Iceland, as an exchange student.
At Oberlin College, where Edgar earned a Bachelor's in history and Latin American studies, he was "always trying to come up with ways to write papers that had something to do with music," he explains. "I actually wrote a paper on [Vermont's] Nisht Geferlach Klezmer Band, and I did research on Puerto Rican music and the Afro-Cuban santería religion." He spent a semester in Costa Rica researching Central American music, and there met his half-Dutch wife, Deirdre Holmes -- they now have two young daughters.
On scholarship at UCLA, Edgar got a Master's in ethnomusicology, and afterwards moved to San Francisco to work for a small label and distributor of world music. That inclusive classification, a marketing term developed in the late 1980s, is "inappropriate but practical," Edgar says. "I sometimes use 'international music.' I describe it as music that has some kind of connection with culture or tradition -- in language, instrumentation, the way it's played."
When Edgar met Dan Storper, the founder of Putumayo, his "world" suddenly got a whole lot bigger.
Putumayo began some 30 years ago selling clothing and imported crafts, but now the brand is better known for its popular compilation discs of music from all over the planet. In fact, Storper eventually sold the clothing line to focus exclusively on his label. It had begun, as so many music collections do, as a personalized labor of love. Storper "was trying to come up with the right music for his shops," Edgar explains -- tunes that suited the ethnic merchandise as well as his own tastes. One day, Storper happened to hear a Nigerian band at an outdoor concert in San Francisco, and observed that the audience enjoying the show was "all races, no baggage," as Edgar puts it. It was exactly the kind of exuberant, pan-cultural experience Storper was looking for. He began compiling tapes to play in his stores, and soon customers were asking for them.
Storper was on to something, but he was a music lover, not a scholar. Enter Jacob Edgar. "Dan needed someone to do research and development, to make the CDs broader. I had to listen to thousands of records, travel to different countries, and meet artists," Edgar complains with tongue in cheek. In fact, it was a young ethnomusicologist's dream job come true.
Putumayo's marketing model is savvy: Titles such as Sahara Lounge, Brazilian Groove and French Café are sold not only in record stores but also clothing and gift-shop outlets where the music is often filling the airwaves as well. And the company's tagline -- "Guaranteed to make you feel good" -- has a socially conscious subtext. On the back of the recent Turkish Groove CD, for example, the fine print says that a portion of proceeds from its sale will be donated "to support . . . efforts to improve child care and education for disadvantaged children in Turkey." Oh, and those informative texts about the artists? Edgar's handiwork.
"I write all the liner notes," he says. "For many years I also supervised the rights and clearances for artists and was an artist liaison. I'm a bad workaholic," Edgar continues, "but I'm also passionate about the Putumayo mission -- it's a vehicle to understand and appreciate the diversity of cultures."
These experiences, and multiple opportunities to "discover" musicians in other countries, eventually led Edgar to envision his own label, one that would produce single-artist releases. "I wanted to work more closely with some of the artists I've gotten to know," he explains. "Dan also liked the idea of doing single artists, but it was hard for Putumayo to take that risk -- its model is better for compilations. So he invested in my company."
Putumayo will also distribute Cumbancha products, a huge boon for Edgar and an opportunity to bring wider attention to even more artists. His first release just came out -- ¡Ay Caramba! by Ska Cubano. An infectiously danceable disc, the music is a collaboration of renowned London ska singer Natty Bo and Cuban crooner Beny Billy. It was previously recorded, but Edgar picked it up as Cumbancha's debut and will promote the band's upcoming North American tour. Cumbancha, by the way, is a West African word meaning "an impromptu musical get-together," Edgar explains. "A cumbanchero is a party animal."
What's all this got to do with Charles Eller Studios? Nothing so far, but read on. When Edgar began fantasizing about his own label, he also thought a lot about coming back to Vermont. He and his family had been living in New York City for a few years, as well as a year in Amsterdam. But with two growing girls, now 6 and 3, the couple pined for a less urban environment. "We wanted to come back [here] someday -- a lot of Vermonters think that," says Edgar. "We wanted to be in a beautiful place with a community of like-minded people."
A mutual family friend, Marshfield musician Diana Winn Levine, made the Eller-Edgar connection last summer, though Eller's place was no longer officially for sale. "We were torn about it," Eller says, "so we just kept failing to put it on the market. We were waiting . . . for something."
Apparently, waiting for Jacob Edgar to come along. "We met Chuck and explained what we wanted to do, and all the pieces just started to fall into place," Edgar says. "I loved the idea of having a studio outside my door. Chuck and Lane have done an amazing thing here, and I wanted to keep it going."
So Eller sold his house to the Edgar family but kept the studio. He and Gibson continue to work with Vermont clients, and Edgar will recruit international artists to record for his label. "Basically Charles Eller Studios stays the same," Edgar confirms. "Cumbancha will bring in projects -- I've been spreading the word with my network of artists that they need to come here." Edgar has a Putumayo project, a children's artist from Trinidad named Asheba, in the Charlotte pipeline as well.
"As Cumbancha evolves, I'll get more involved in the studio," Edgar says. "It will be an apprenticeship kind of transition for me, since I've come from another aspect of the business." He also expects to take Eller to other parts of the world for remote recordings. "Hanitra is the leader of a band in Madagascar; she wants me to come there to produce her record," Edgar notes. "It's the type of project I could envision."
"We'll potentially use some Vermont musicians on records with international artists," Eller adds, suggesting that "cross-pollination" will be advantageous for the homegrown music scene. So would a world-music series at a local venue such as Higher Ground; Edgar says he could see that happening down the road. "Right now my dilemma is too many fun choices." Nice work if you can get it.
For Eller, joining forces with Edgar and Cumbancha feels like a circle coming full. "At one point in my life I was going to go into the study of ethnomusicology, at Wesleyan," he reminisces, "but some of my grades from UVM wouldn't transfer, and then I got involved in [former Ferrisburgh studio/label] Philo Records."
Eller's path also led him to co-found the jazz ensemble Kilimanjaro, whose debut recording in 1981 reached number three on national music charts; a second album two years later reached number 5. As it happens, 20 years after Kilimanjaro broke up, they're performing a reunion show, with some newly composed tunes, at the Discover Jazz Fest this week.
Kilimanjaro called it quits in part out of frustration with the major-label music biz, but also because another opportunity came along they couldn't refuse: Big Joe Burrell. As the Unknown Blues Band, keyboardist Eller and his musical mates backed the beloved saxman for nearly two decades. That's how long Eller has been behind the soundboard as well; at his first studio in an apartment on South Union Street, then in the room-with-a-rural-view in Charlotte, Chuck "Ears" Eller has earned a reputation for his recording finesse.
And don't get the idea that place in San Pancho is just for hanging by the pool with a chilled Sangria. Yes, it will be a winter get-away for the Ellers. But with three buildings on a "very old-Mexico" compound, he says, "We want to have basically a B&B where friends, clients, Jacob, Lane, etc., can come down and do some work, and write it off!" And with the much larger city of Puerto Vallarta just half an hour away, Eller adds, "There's a real market for a recording studio. We could probably have it up and running by next winter . . ."
Edgar doesn't seem to be in any hurry for a south-of-the-border vacation. He travels constantly anyway. But in recent weeks he's been catching up with old Vermont friends, working on his Cumbancha business plan and thinking about putting down roots. "I hope I can return what this place gave me, growing up and seeing some great shows here," he says. Even in Vermont, he suggests, "Diversity is already a part of our lives."