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PUERTO RICO HERALD
From Puerto Rico To Putumayo: Michael Kraus Musical Odyssey
By Natalia de Cuba Romero
June 27, 2003
Antilles High School celebrated its 50th anniversary last week with a series of events that brought together about 700 alumni and faculty from the island and around the States. Surprise, surprise: one of them was Michael Kraus, the co-founder of Putumayo, one of my favourite record companies in the world.
Fortunately, my buddy Leandro Herbstein at Putumayo contacted me to tell me that Michael would be in town and did I want to meet him. Well of course I did! My music collection would be pretty thin if it werent for the brightly illustrated World Music CDs of Putumayo. And I was very curious to find out what Mr. Kraus Puerto Rico connection is.
It turns out that Michael was a freshly minted music graduate from the University of Missouri when he was offered the job of music teacher at Antilles. So from 1964-66 and again from 1968-72, he taught band and chorus, as well as the general music curriculum. We have Michael, now 61, to thank for Puerto Ricos first uniformed high school marching band.
And in addition to influencing a generation of musicians and music lovers, Michael became something of a star performer himself. His story is like a trip into the glittering days of a bubbly past.
"I was the only bass trombone player on the island," Michael recalls. "I played with everyone: the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, with the Golden Band and did jazz workshops at the University of Puerto Rico. I also played at the Tropicoro in the El San Juan Hotel. I played with Sammy David Jr., Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, José Feliciano Everyone came down in those days. Every week to ten days you were doing a different show. I was fortunate that Antilles allowed me to moonlight that way and sometimes even gave me time off for rehearsal. And I still had time to water ski!"
His first son was conceived in Puerto Rico and he and his then-wife left to be nearer her family in New York, but Kraus has never forgotten his Puerto Rico experience and the people like the late María Lourdes Gandía, then assistant principal, who became his second mother.
"Puerto Rico está en mi corazón," he says in the patio of the Hotel Pierre, looking very much the laid-back musician in a T-shirt, slouchy trousers, a ponytail and glasses. "I had a beachfront house with three terraces overlooking the ocean for just $135 a month. I was playing music. It was the best time of my life."
His continuing eclectic career has included owning the merchandising, roller skating and hot dog concessions in Central Park, which his two boys grew up thinking was their backyard, and opening Catch A Rising Star comedy and music club (the rising stars to whom he paid $20 for a 20-minute show include Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Adam Sandler and Chris Rock). Then in 1993 his friend of 30 years, compulsive world traveler Dan Storper, came to him with a proposal for starting a record company for the kind of world music that Dan was playing in his funky Putumayo clothing stores and that all his customers wanted to buy. Michael bit and Putumayo was born.
With international superstars like Habib Koité, Miriam Makeba and Oliver Mtukudzi cutting records and touring for them, Putumayo celebrating its tenth anniversary this year -- has gone from a small label putting compilations of music from far-flung parts of the globe, to an international label with original recordings as well as the compilations. There is now a Putumayo Cross Cultural Initiative to give back to the kids from the communities often poor, Third World countries -- that give birth to the beautiful and spirited music that is Putumayos specialty.
Of course there is a Puerto Rico compilation in the collection. Featuring slow, sexy salsa by Eddie Palmieri; jíbaro sounds from Andrés Jiménez; a jazzified guajira by Jimmy Bosch; a bolero blast from the past from Ramito; bomba by the Cepeda family; a seis by cuatro master Edwin Colón Zayas; plena by former artistic director for Rafael Cortijo, Pepe Castillo as well as Plena Libre; Latin trumpet by Julius Meléndez; folkloric explorations by Atabal; a Vieques song that unites Ismael Miranda and Andrés Jiménez in short, this is a great sampler of many styles of Puerto Rican music. Ive got it rocking right now on the CD player and it is just wonderful. Plus, Putumayo is dedicated to education, so its liner notes are outstanding, giving listeners a way to understand what they are hearing.
"The Puerto Rico CD is one of our bestsellers," says Michael. "One thing many Puerto Rican companies do is by them in large quantities because they are great for welcome basket gifts or souvenirs for their clients and visitors to take back home."
A new Putumayo Kids division product will be of particular interest to folks with kids or students who are working on being bilingual, which is most of us Puerto Ricans on either side of the puddle. Latin Playground English & Spanish Activity Kit includes a CD especially for kids, a 64-page activity guide with lyrics and lessons on the songs originating countries in both languages, and a passport journal for the kids to record their impressions. I snagged one off Michael, but you can order them by visiting www.Putumayokids.com or coming soon at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.
And while Putumayo discs are available at many record shops, bookstores, clothing stores and souvenir shops island-wide, you can get more information by visiting www.putumayo.com. On the island you can hear the Putumayo World Music Hour where founder Dan Storper and friends play music from the world over on Radio Universidad de Puerto Rico (89.7 FM San Juan/88.3 FM Mayagüez) on Tuesdays at 11 pm and Sundays at 8 am.
And as for Michael Kraus when will we see him again?
"Ive always dreamed of having a little music club again in the islands," he says wistfully. "And I love Puerto Rico. So you never know."
Natalia de Cuba Romero is a freelance travel, food and arts writer. Her column, "Sights, Sounds & Tastes of Puerto Rico", appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald. She can be reached at NataliaHerald@centennialpr.net.