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Tuesday, 31 March 2020 14:08

Che Apalache

Written by Alan Kellogg
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Their impressive, inspirational bluegrass roots stretch from Argentina to Appalachia.

Che Apalache—a band that puts the world back into world music. Definitively.

You try to imagine the pitch session of a screenwriter or agent or manager or aspiring novelist.

Here’s your high concept: A kid from the Piedmont tobacco country of Winston-Salem, NC, was taken by a concert by fellow Tar Heel/certified master Doc Watson. The young lad, one Joe Troop, became entranced as any sentient being with operational ears should in that iconic company. He set out to become a musician himself. And boy, was he ever in the right place on the planet.

Finding competent, inspirational teachers/fellow enthusiasts of string band music—folk, bluegrass, old-timey, mountain, etc.—in that neck of Appalachia is about as hard as scouting out a local meal of grits, black-eyed peas, greens, and corn bread. Not, you appreciate, that the eating morphs you into a world-class chef—or, in this case, that the elevated learning process was inevitably destined to produce an accomplished singer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter.

It just happened to work out that way. Having said it—trust me on this, as I have my own cautionary ancient history with the state—there is certainly also a social downside to certain parts of the purple state. That was especially so for a young gay man such as our hero, Joe, who espoused progressive politics and a yearning to savour the world and its myriad treasures, musical and otherwise. As his official bio puts it, “at a certain point he no longer felt welcome in his own home region.”  

That led to expat status that continues to this day. Along the way, there were extended residencies in Spain, North Africa, Japan, and, finally, to Argentina, where he lives today in the capital, Buenos Aires. Blessed also with what must be an impressive facility for language, he learned Japanese and Spanish, along with myriad musical influences that can be heard in his music with Che Apalache today. That includes, but certainly isn’t restricted, to flamenco, swing, (Django-esque) jazz manouche, South American folk strains including Uruguayan murga, swing, cumbia, tango, Sephardic, and (well) beyond. And yes, Japanese traditional as well.

On the other hand, the band can burn through a standard bluegrass instrumental with the best of them, along with easily summoning the ghost of Stanley Brothers vocal harmonies. Troop’s clear, clean, resonant lead vocals in English remind me of a young Rodney Dillard. I lack the sophistication to suggest comparisons in Spanish or Japanese but it comes off real enough.

All this could be very confusing to some. And totally beguiling. But unlike so many hyphenated fill-in-the-blank–grass hybrid bands, the songs, performances, and arrangements feel whole and unique, as opposed to grafting something “foreign” onto a basic bluegrass band format.

Hanging with the Argentine community in Seville for a time, Troop finally set off for Buenos Aires in 2010, coincidentally the year the Peronista government of the day proclaimed marriage equality. A good omen. Via the Internet and postering music stores, he set up shop teaching bluegrass and suddenly found some serious interest.

On the line from the Argentine capital on a beautiful February summer’s day way down south, Troop, well spoken as you might expect, affable as you would hope, explains the Che Apalache creation story.
“There is a hobbyist tradition in Argentina where people will devote a year to investigate something different. They’ll say to themselves, ‘what can I do to satisfy this curiosity’ and go for it. It’s often an exploration as opposed to pursuing something on a permanent basis. I ended up with a lot of great students.”

In time, three of them were so impressive that Troop reckoned that he was ready to throw in his lot with them, who bring their own disparate traditions and influences to the mix. Argentines Franco Martino (guitar) and Martin Bobrik (mandolin) join Mexican capitalino Pau Barjau on banjo.

The band has certainly enjoyed success in its home stomping grounds, if also considered on the avant-garde side of the equation.

“Bluegrass will never become mainstream in Argentina,” Troop laughs, “which is fine.” The band attracted U.S. grant money to float an American tour in 2017 and quickly recorded its debut album, Latingrass, in Buenos Aires—an impressive primer by any metric, stretching from affecting political songs such as progressive gospel of The Wall or heart-wrenching sentiments of Prisionero to the Ballad of Jed Clampett. They sang The Wall (“Let us sing about a better world / Where different paths will soon unfurl”) at a Virginia fiddler’s convention the same day as the infamous Charlottesville Nazi march. An irate listener stormed the stage.

The music, and at least to some degree the group’s inclusive mission, was noticed in the States. By 2019, banjo virtuoso/brilliant cross-pollinator/Troop musical hero Béla Fleck answered a letter and music file Joe sent him. Impressed, Fleck waived the fee and invited the band to his famously rigourous summer banjo camp. Things went well and soon enough the maestro was producing the Nashville sessions that became Rearrange My Heart, a standout album that richly deserves a Grammy, among other kudos.

Among the varied (!) selections you’ll find is the superb, powerful The Dreamer, which chronicles the story of Troop’s friend Moises Serrano, a queer North Carolina immigrant and DACA recipient (please look it up, Canadian/British readers) from Mexico.  

“He’s as much a North Carolinian as I am. I am a migrant myself now. He can’t go to college because of these clowns. We have to change that. This is dangerous territory, but we have to discover what ‘common ground’ really means. Common ground is what Che Apalache is all about.”

2020 will find the band on extensive tours in the U.S. and South America, with no scheduled dates in Canada—a fact that should inspire a degree of soul searching by its booking agency.

“We do sometimes struggle with presenting our point of view to southern (American) audiences and promoters. But we are the farthest thing from being politically heavy-handed. The idea, again, is to seek common ground. I hope that for some people, [our work is] medicine, something to feel good about given the complexities we all deal with. If someone hears us and begins pondering the plight of undocumented immigrants and re-thinks things, well, great. This isn’t a pipe dream.

“And, of course, we hope they simply enjoy the music and the cultural fusion.” Little worry there, given a chance. Here is music that deserves our attention.

The full article is also available in pdf - click the download attachment link below...

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