Winston-Salem Journal: Winston-Salem native fronts band playing 'Latin Grass'

Under a tent at the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax last week, the members of Che Apalache leaned in and began singing a capella in four-part harmony, their voices weaving together like fiber on a rope.

There’s all kinds of talk about building a wall along the Southern border/about building a wall between me and you/Lord if such nonsense would come true, we’ll have to knock it down.

The air at Galax was already saturated with the sound of the hills, with echos from fiddles, banjos and dobros swirling above the campers and tents at the granddaddy of all fiddler’s conventions.

But the singing from the four men in Che Apalache made passersby stop in their tracks and listen, such was its beauty. Closer listeners would have detected a slight Latin accent blending with the twang of Joe Troop’s lead tenor.

Troop is a Winston-Salem native who took his love of bluegrass to Buenos Aires, found two Argentines and a Mexican with an affection for the music of the Southern Appalachians and formed a band, Che Apalache, that plays what they call “Latin Grass.”

Sitting under a tent last week in Galax, Troop and his bandmates — Martin Bobrik on mandolin; Franco Martino on guitar; and Pau Andres Barjau Mateu on banjo — explained the band’s unique sound, which involves putting Argentine folk songs through a bluegrass blender.

“It’s like an elephant and a mouse made a baby,” Troop said.

Bobrik piped in: “It’s a mouse-a-phant.”

Local folks will get a chance to hear this mishmash of cultures on Sunday. The band will play at 2 p.m. at Muddy Creek Music Hall and 6 p.m. at a fundraiser at El Buen Pastor, a local nonprofit organization that works with the Latin community.

The shows mark the end of what has been a month-long immersion in the music of Southern Appalachia, with concerts at the Blue Ridge Music Center, Floyd Fest, the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, W.Va., and the convention Galax.

For Troop’s bandmates, the experience has been an education, especially in places such as Clifftop and Galax, where the music is nonstop.

Such a tradition does not exist in Argentina, Mateu said. “In Argentina, there’s a lot of folk tradition, but no tradition of getting together and camping and sort of jamming,” he said. “Living with your instrument makes you a better musician. We are getting better at bluegrass because we are listening and playing music.”

The musicians here are generous, too, Bobrik said.

“Everybody knows you’re learning and everyone makes you feel like it’s OK to be wrong,” he said. “If you mess up a solo, it’s OK. You’re learning. But you don’t feel that in Argentina. You get it wrong, it’s ‘You suck.’”

The band is Troop’s vision, who has been a global citizen since leaving Winston-Salem shortly after graduating from Reynolds in 2001.

His musical training began here, with piano lessons from Fred Pivetta at the Community Music School and banjo lessons from Jody King and Craig Smith. Terry Hicks, a longtime choral teacher at Reynolds, was also a big influence.

At Reynolds, Troop was exposed to bluegrass during a school trip to the mountains.

“Some of the counselors were playing around a campfire, and it was, ‘Wow.’ I got more hooked on banjo and discovered there was a huge scene. My teachers told me to go to Galax, Merlefest, Fiddler’s Grove and hang out. I’d go to these places and see other young musicians and they were just slaying it,” he said.

Music became his saving grace as he struggled growing up as a closeted gay teenager in 1990s Winston-Salem. The mood was hostile toward gay people at that time, Troop said, and he felt constantly afraid. He found comfort and acceptance in the music community.

“It saved me. There were older adults who could guide me on a music journey but also help me emotionally,” Troop said. “I was scared to death.”

After stints in Spain and Japan, Troop, a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill, moved to Buenos Aires about seven years ago. He had made friends with Argentines on some of his travels and liked their sense of humor. Bueno Aires, he said, also seemed like a place where he could live cheaply while making money giving lessons and playing shows.

Among his students were his current bandmates in Che Apalache. They were already musicians but wanted to learn more about the various instruments in bluegrass.

Bluegrass is seldom played in Argentina, and most folks may associate the banjo with cartoons, Bobrik said.

Troop gave his bandmates records by Ralph Stanley and others to learn the bluegrass style.

Che Apalache formed in 2016 and have toured a bit around Argentina. They laughed that when they play, people view them as a cultural curiosity, applauding politely rather than the “yee-haws,” that might be heard in the U.S., during a blistering fiddle part.

The band’s first album, “Latin Grass,” includes a blend of folk songs in Spanish, traditional bluegrass songs and Troop originals, including “The Wall,” a critical look at the proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Troop said such a wall is an affront to the cultural ties between the Americas.

“From North to South, it’s a cool culture, and there’s a lot to be explored,” Troop said. “We share similar histories. I think the underlying message is there’s a lot of possibility for peaceful organization, especially on the grassroots level.”

The show at El Buen Pastor is particularly important to Troop, who said though such organizations can’t stop the rash of recent deportations, it can help working families by organizing after-school activities for kids and offer other support.

“It’s one of our messages on this tour,” he said.