The Roanoke Times: A good kind of culture clash

Word association time: Bluegrass. What comes to mind?

Some might think banjos or fiddles. Others might think about songs of love (“Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arm”) or love lost (“Blue Moon of Kentucky”).

Still others might think of the mountains of Appalachia, be it “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “Rocky Top” or . . . well, the list kind of goes on and on, doesn’t it? What you probably don’t think of is this: Bluegrass as a vehicle for a contemporary political protest song. Ah, how little we know of our own history sometimes. Bluegrass aficionados know that the history of the genre is full of political songs, many of them about coal miners, coal mine owners and the conflict between the two. Those union battles, though, were a long time ago, and the adjective we used above was “contemporary.” This is where we introduce you to a relatively new bluegrass song that is very much contemporary (it came out last year) and is definitely political. It’s also a song that’s set a long way from Appalachia. It deals with the U.S.-Mexican border — from the point of view of a Latin American immigrant.

The song “The Wall” is about, well, the title is pretty obvious. So are the key lyrics:

Come sisters, brothers gather near / We’ve come to share our worries

We fear what some folks have been saying about Latin Americans / the truth’s been misconstrued

There’s all kinds of talk ‘bout building a wall / down along the Southern border.

‘bout building a wall between me and you / Lord, and if such nonsense should come true /

then, we’ll have to knock it down.

This is clearly not your granddaddy’s bluegrass. It is, however, the bluegrass of one of the most unusual bluegrass bands around. Che Apalache is a four-man band based in Buenos Aires that includes one member from North Carolina, one from Mexico and two from Argentina.

If you’re at the 18th annual FloydFest this weekend, you have not one, not two, but three chances to hear the band — and likely the song “The Wall,” as well. The band plays today at 4:30 p.m., Saturday at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m. If you miss Che Apalache there, you have more opportunities. The band plays the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 2, the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia, on Aug. 3, the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax on Aug. 4 and in Bristol, Tennessee, on Aug. 9 before moving on to Texas and California.

The song “The Wall” raises a question we haven’t really heard addressed in American politics before. For all the talk about President Trump’s desire to build a border wall, there seems no discussion of what some future Democratic administration would do about that. (And ultimately, yes, someday there will be another Democratic president; the history of modern American politics is that it’s hard for one party to retain the White House for more than two terms in a row and sometimes not even that.) If Trump were to succeed in building a border wall, we can easily imagine some future Democratic president vowing to tear it down.

That’s why we’ve always been baffled by the immigration debates in Washington. If Trump says the price for giving the so-called Dreamers a path to citizenship is a border wall, why not give it to him? Yes, that would be anathema to many Democrats but consider the scale of the trade-offs. Democrats would get a permanent fix to the problem of young adults who have grown up as Americans but lack the paperwork; Trump would get only an impermanent wall that could be taken down later — its pieces sold off as scrap that could be used to build a Southwestern version of the Statue of Liberty along the Rio Grande. Yes, funding a wall you know will be torn down would be a waste of money, but, let’s face it, when have Democrats been that concerned about spending? (For that matter, given the deficit-swelling budgets the Republican-controlled Congress has recently passed, Republicans don’t even seem concerned about spending anymore.) The real fix to uncontrolled immigration along the southern border is not a wall but changing the conditions in Latin America that have inspired the mass migration of refugees fleeing violence.

Ultimately, though, this isn’t an editorial about migration of people, it’s about the migration of music and cultures. Bluegrass is native to Appalachia but now extends to the Andes. It was imported to Argentina in 2010 when the North Carolina-based musician Joe Troop moved there “with only a suitcase, fiddle and banjo,” according to his official bio. He started teaching music — guitar, mandolin, fiddle and yes, banjo. In time, he formed the band Che Apalache with three of his students. Together, they play a variation of bluegrass that is termed “Latingass” — which also happens to be the name of the band’s latest album. It sounds a lot like bluegrass, except that some of it is sung in Spanish, and there are occasionally songs such as, well, “The Wall.”

This fusion of Appalachian music with Latin American sensibilities might seem strange to some ears, but the combination is really as American as, well, everything American. We talk about things being “as American as apple pie” but the apple traces its heritage to the steppes of central Asia. Traditional bluegrass was itself an amalgamation of music from multiple cultures — some from England, some from Scotland, some from Ireland. The fiddle, one of the genre’s foundational instruments, came from Italy by way of the Byzantine Empire; the banjo came from Africa.

Some on the left fret about “cultural appropriation” — the notion of one culture “stealing” from another as if culture were a physical property such as, say, a car. Culture, though, has always been malleable. That is what makes American culture so interesting — we have never been afraid to borrow and blend and create something new. We here in the Blue Ridge live at the northern end of an incredible arc of musical creation, one that stretches all the way to the Mississippi Delta. Lots of different cultures collided along that arc, with the resulting sparks leading to virtually all the major forms of music today — bluegrass, country, jazz and the earliest rock’n’rollers. In Che Apalache — which last year took first place at the Appalachian String Band Festival — we have a rare opportunity see that process of creation continue to play out in front of our eyes, and in our ears.

There may or may not someday be a wall on the southern border, but there can never be a sound barrier. That is a good thing.

Bluegrass Today: Bluegrass Beyond Borders – Che Apalache from south of the Border

By Lee Zimmerman

At first it seems like an unlikely combination at best — a bluegrass band that sings in Spanish and adds elements of Latin music to their material. Nevertheless, Che Apalache, a four-man string band based in Buenos Aires that includes players from Argentina, Mexico, and the United States, does just that. Led by fiddler Joe Troop, a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from North Carolinia who relocated to Argentina in 2010, he met his future compatriots — Pau Barjau (banjo), Franco Martino (guitar), and Martin Bobrik (mandolin) — while teaching music for a living, and ended up forming the band.

In the process, they evolved from bluegrass and grassicana — still a sound that’s a mainstay of their music — into an approach best described as “Latingrass,” which is also the title of their debut album. It’s a synthesis of styles that span from Appalachia to the Andes, as their bio states so succinctly. Last year a grant from both the North Carolina Humanities Council and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities allowed them opportunity to tour the States, eventually garnering them a first place nod at the prestigious Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia.

Naturally, we were fascinated, so we spoke with Troop and asked him to share his backstory…

BLUEGRASS TODAY: For starters, is Argentinian Americana/grassicana/bluegrass a growing and potent movement? Just how popular is bluegrass in Argentina? Are there other bands doing the same thing?

JOE TROOP: Bluegrass was virtually nonexistent when I moved to Argentina in 2010. There was interest in bluegrass instruments though. I’ve taught hundreds of students banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and guitar. Few actually latched on and have taken it seriously, but I’d say there are now about 20 people I know of devoted to the style. There is another band called Angry Zeta in Buenos Aires that fuses bluegrass and punk that is getting popular. Actually, our bandmate Martin also plays banjo in that band. They kill it! There is also a growing folk music scene with weekly events and enthusiastic attendance. All in all, there is way more interest in Americana music than there was eight years ago when I moved here. Plus, Che Apalache does fusion, so we are able to rope in music lovers of all sorts. Much of our audience had never heard of bluegrass, but they related more immediately to our “latingrass” repertoire. Since then, they have slowly grown accustomed to Appalachian music and are beginning to dig it. We’re planting seeds, you could say.

What were the band members original influences?

I am from North Carolina and learned to play bluegrass from incredible regional musicians as a teenager. Two of my bandmates are Argentinians. Franco Martino’s father brought him up listening to and playing southern rock. He was already a great electric guitarist before coming to study bluegrass with me. He already understood many of the stylistic nuances. Martin Bobrik taught himself to play banjo on YouTube. He came to me for a lesson but was already ripping it. He began playing the mandolin to join Che Apalache. He’s a wiz kid and picks things up incredibly fast! The banjo player is Pau Barjau from Mexico. He’s my prized pupil. When he came to me for banjo lessons, he had never even heard of bluegrass. Actually, he was concentrating on electric bass, and got to the banjo through Victor Wooten’s collaborations with Béla Fleck. From the get go, he was interested in pushing the limits of the banjo. I’m a bit older than my bandmates. They started as my students, but when I realized they were were getting better than me, I was like, “Damn, I need to start a band with these guys!” I do most of the composing and song-writing. But we do the arrangements as a group. They happen very organically in our rehearsals. No writing things down — we just let it flow. We’re currently working on new material for a second album we’ll record in November.

What kind of response have you gotten to your music back home?

Back in Argentina we’re getting a great response in the independent music scene. What we do is considered avant-garde down there. This year we’re going to be touring throughout the country as well as doing a residency at a theater called Hasta Trilce in Buenos Aires. We’re beginning to attract attention in the country’s small and competitive independent music scene. We’ve also got some great momentum in the US. We just signed with the Herschel Freeman Agency out of Memphis and are extremely honored to be on his artist roster! Herschel understands what we’re going for. We are going to be touring all across the States from mid-July to mid-October.

What do you think makes bluegrass so popular around the globe? As an original American musical style, why do you think it translates so well in other parts of the world?

Bluegrass is not popular in Argentina and never will be. In fact, many people down there understandably reject all things USA, since American foreign policy has ravished Latin America for a long time. What I like about what we’re doing with Che Apalache is that we challenge people to get to know a very different United States, the one that produces an amazing arts culture. Many Latin Americans are deterred by the idea of North American culture, but we try to suggest to them a very different possibility. We are a tri-national fusion group, two parts Argentinian, one part Mexican, one part North Carolinian. We’re advocates for a unified, globally-minded America, from north to south.


Club del Disco: Latingrass

Algo totalmente diferente nos trae ahora Joe Troop. Este músico trotamundos, originario de Carolina del Norte pero afincado hace años en Buenos Aires, formó a los otros tres miembros de Che Apalache, juntos crearon este interesante primer disco, donde el bluegrass se fundo con ritmos de todo el continente.

Los socios del Club del Disco conocen a Joe Troop por sus dos discos anteriores: A Traveler's Sketches (2011) y Cheap Sacred Texts and Microwaves (2014), ambos fueron grabados junto al contrabajista Diego Sánchez. En lo que fue de uno a otro, Joe creció como poeta y compositor, y lo que era with (con) Diego Sánchez, pasó a ser & Diego Sánchez. Luego de disuelta esa sociedad, el violinista siguió adelante con diversos proyectos además de ser docente, hasta que finalmente se quedó con este Che Apalache: un cuarteto en el que es claramente líder (compositor y cantante) pero que encierra más de una hermosa historia y otros tres instrumentistas geniales.

Formar a los músicos y luego tocar el género que uno les enseñó es un raro lujo que se da Joe. Pero, claro, hay un intercambio; es bien sabido que la relación maestro-alumno no es una vía unidireccional. Esa dinámica hizo que de a poco los ritmos latinoamericanos fueran invadiendo el bluegrass (la música tradicional de sus pagos) hasta convertir al grupo en una rara mezcla. De ahí el nombre del disco: Latingrass. Martín Bobrik en mandolina, Franco Martino en guitarra y Pau Barjau en banjo completan el grupo trinacional (ya que hay un estadounidense, un mexicano y dos argentinos) que va pasando sutilmente por sobre las fronteras que aparecen dibujadas en los mapas.

Así, puede pasar que una melodía tradicional como Red Rocking Chair(track 2) sea traducida al castellano y con un acompañamiento casi del altiplano devenga en música sudamericana, de pronto. Tilingo Lingo, de México, o Cambalache, son encarados con esta formación que podría ser atípica y todo suena natural, pese a la exótica mezcla de instrumentos y géneros.

Muy bien reatratada la energía grupal, que es escencial en esta música, bien popular. Grabado tal como se presentan, tocando al mismo tiempo y con micrófonos condenser, tenemos la sensación de estar escuchándolos desde un escenario, en un festival (ya han hecho una gira por los Estados Unidos, causando sensación allí y se presentan seguido en la Argentina).

Un párrafo final para The Wall, que no es la de Pink Floyd: es una canción en la que denuncian el muro que promete separar a los Estados Unidos de México. Hecha a capella, las cuatro voces resonando en el antiguo estilo del barbershop quartet, esa mezcla de tradición y rebeldía es un hermoso cierre para el disco.

Un grupo soprendente, híbrido y fresco. Con sentidos del humor y candor en lo que están tocando, nos convidan de su pasión con buen ritmo.

Club del Disco

Virginia's Public Radio: Band Blends the Sound of Appalachia with Traditional Latin Music

By Sandy Hausman

The presidential election of 2016 left many Americans wondering if there was any way to bridge some deep cultural divides in this country.  How could Mexican Americans, for example, find common ground with coal miners from Appalachia?

As you drive south from Roanoke, the radio dial is increasingly short on options.  There’s pop – and country music,  religious tunes  and programming for those who prefer something spicy .  That last choice is popular with a growing population of farm and forest workers from Mexico and Latin America – a group that hasn’t really integrated with long-time locals.  To promote cross-cultural ties, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the North Carolina Humanities Council invited a unique  Argentinian band to visit and play.  It’s called Che Appalache.

“Che is ubiquitous in Argentina.  It’s a way of saying buddy or homey or friend or pal,” says Joe Troop, an American musician who lives in Buenos Aires.  "It’s the way you grab someone’s attention – like Hey, Che!, and Appalache means Appalachian.”
Troop teaches banjo.  That’s how he met Martin Bobrik.

“I’ve seen banjos and bluegrass music in cartoons when I was a little kid.  Bugs Bunny and Doug played the banjo," he recalls. "Also thanks to YouTube and the Internet I found out that the name of the style was bluegrass.”
Franco Martino and Pau Barjau also signed up for lessons.

“We’re all globalized people.  We got to the banjo because of this globalization, but there’s nothing like sitting down and seeing a bluegrass jam live,” he says.  Together they play a fusion of traditional Latin songs and blue grass, using Appalachian instruments, for example, to present a tango.

“We had to start from step one," says Troop. "It was, ‘What’s a banjo roll?  What’s a G-run?  What is this culture? How is the syncopation?  It’s not like Latin American folk at all, so it was a learning process, but they’re very fast.”

And at other times they present traditional mountain tunes without a hint of their Hispanic roots.  Troop has also instructed band members on the subtleties of bluegrass performance.

“Basic etiquette.  How to kick off a song.  How to end a song. How to deliver things with confidence.  You gotta’ put it out there, you know what I mean.  You can’t be timid.  That off the cuff nature of American music – I try my best to impart that.”
And he’s schooled them in body language on stage.

“Some people use their eyes more.  Some people gesticulate more, but some of the obvious ones are + when it’s time to end a song, people will stick their leg in the air, or you could just say, ‘Here’s the last time through,’ and it seems easy, but when you’re in the middle of a song if you don’t understand those cues you’ll keep going and then you’ll play an extra chord, and it will sound wonky, and you’re the guy that messed up the jam.”

So far, Bobrik says, the sound hasn’t caught fire in Argentina’s capital.

“The people that come to see us in Buenos Aires – we’re like something exotic, classy, which bluegrass is not that."
"Are you saying bluegrass isn’t classy?" Troop demands, with mock indignation.
"It can be," Bobrik concedes, "but many times we wish that people would get a little bit drunk and start dancing.  They are always sitting with their hands on their chins saying, ‘Oh, listen to that.  That’s really interesting.’”
But during a month-long visit to  Appalachia, Troop says their sound was a hit.

“Sons and daughters of Latin Americans that were born in the United States coming up to us in tears, saying, ‘You gave me an artistic voice.  I identified with you guys.’ And then there are some people who would love to believe in the unity of the Americas as this larger continent that’s coming out of colonization and has this very similar past.”

And at the Old Fiddler’s Convention, this song – called The Wall – won an enthusiastic response from a largely Appalachian crowd.

There’s all kinds of talk ‘bout building a wall down along the Southern border.

‘bout building a wall between me and you
Lord, and if such nonsense should come true
then we’ll have to knock it down
‘Cause that idea won’t fly so high
as a wingless bird in a rock hard sky
So, no siree, we won’t comply
we’re going to stand our ground
To love thy neighbor as thyself is a righteous law to live by
But leaders sing a different song
they break us up so they stay strong
and ignorantly we’re strung along
until we meet our doom
Yes, our leaders are so ripe with sin
they feed us chants to rope us in
but ‘fore to long we’ll find, my friends
that we’re penned against The Wall
Come friends, come friends. Come gather ‘round
For to sing, oh sing we joyfully!
Let us sing about a better world
Where different paths will soon unfurl
where no man’s blood shall stain the soil
Yes a land where freedom rings.

North Carolina Public Radio: ‘Che Apalache’ Strums Bluegrass From Buenos Aires

The word ‘che’ is ubiquitous on the streets of Argentina. It is a term of endearment that people use often in casual conversation – similar to a word like buddy in American slang. So when North Carolina native Joe Troop decided to form a band in Buenos Aires with a group of his students, he found it fitting to characterize themselves using the term ‘che.’ The band Che Apalache is comprised of four musicians from three countries who fuse Appalachian folk with Latin American music.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Che Apalache about their origin story and sound. Che Apalache is Joe Troop on fiddle and lead vocals, Pau Andrés Barjau Mateu on banjo and vocals, Franco Martino on guitar and vocals, Martin Bobrik on mandolin and vocals. The band will be playing shows at venues throughout North Carolina for the next few weeks.