SPOTLIGHT: Che Apalache Crosses Borders with a Message
Photo by Mauro Milanich and Andrés Corbo
Hit “play” on the first track of bluegrass band Che Apalache’s new Béla Fleck-produced album Rearrange My Heart (out Aug. 9 on Free Dirt Records) and the first question that might come to mind is, “When?”
The album opens with the crackling sound of a needle hitting vinyl in glorious mono. But once the group’s four members start singing “Saludo Murguero,” your question will probably shift to, “Where?” It’s a song of greeting that moves back and forth between English and Spanish:
Hola, somos Che Apalache.
We travel near, we travel far.
From the town of Buenos Aires.
Pull a chair up to the table.
Hoy brindamos from the heart.
Without borders, sin fronteras.
Este viaje va a empezar.
This polyglot bluegrass quartet originated 5,000 miles south of the Appalachian Mountains, forming (and still living) in the unlikely bluegrass burg of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Two members, guitarist Franco Martino and mandolinist Martin Bobrik, are native Argentines. Banjo player Pau Barjau came from Mexico. And the group’s ringleader and sole American is fiddler Joe Troop, a North Carolina native whose post-collegiate travels across the globe took him to Buenos Aires close to a decade ago.
Crossing borders is very much at the center of the Che Apalache aesthetic — and not just geographically and linguistically: Troop is one of the very few out-and-proud gay musicians in bluegrass. Music, sexuality, and identity are all interconnected for Troop, who last summer published a moving essay for the Bluegrass Pride organization that began, “I fell in love with bluegrass the night before I decided to hide I was gay.”
It happened on a ninth-grade field trip during which Troop heard two counselors playing bluegrass and shortly afterward realized he was also feeling a confusing rush of attraction for some of his male classmates. Only 15 years old and scared, he decided to repress those feelings, keeping to the closet for years while beginning to make his way as a bluegrass musician himself.
“Yeah, that’s always been melded with my budding love of acoustic instruments,” Troop said in an interview, calling from his home in Buenos Aires. “There have never been many out gay people in bluegrass. One of my earliest mentors, who gave me one of my first professional gigs where I actually got paid, was closeted and only his intimate friends knew he was gay. But I guess he just felt like it had to be that way. ‘Gay bluegrass musician’ is an interesting identity to forge. The sexual climate in general is pretty weird in the US, so much homophobia in hearts and minds, especially in the Southeast. Men there seem to have this kind of masculinity where they have to constantly reassure themselves they’re not gay.”
Troop finally came out publicly during his freshman year at the University of North Carolina, after which he promptly left the country to study abroad in Spain for two years. He went back to America to finish his degree in Spanish and also spent a few years in Japan, but a chance meeting at the beginning of his time in Spain would prove to be an important milestone.
In Seville, Troop saw someone busking in the street with an instrument he’d never seen before. Stopping to talk, he learned that it was a bandoneon, a concertina popular in Argentina. He and the bandoneon player started getting together for jams, which introduced Troop to a network of musicians, artists, and expatriates from Argentina.
That eventually led to Troop, now 36, moving to Argentina himself in 2010. He hung out a shingle as instrument teacher and eventually formed a band with some of his better students. Banjo player Barjau was the first to join, followed by guitarist Martino. Bobrik, who initially taught himself how to play mandolin online, was the last member to join in 2012.
“Word got out about ‘this guy who plays banjo and mandolin and violin in a strange way,’” Troop said. “Enough students came to make it work, although most just came for a class or two or maybe a month. A few stuck with it, and these guys in Che Apalache are the cream of the crop. None of us consider ourselves The Next Big Thing on our instruments. We do consider ourselves craftsmen, trying to create sonic photos that are enticing and mean something more than, ‘Look how virtuosic we are.’ We sculpt our compositions to best execute what we know. That’s the core, to rejoice in our limitations and try to make mountains of music within them.”
Over time, Che Apalache started to jell. Excursions into the US to play went well, as did their 2017 album Latin Grass. So for the next album, they hooked up with Troop’s longtime idol Fleck after Troop finagled an invitation to a banjo camp that Fleck was overseeing in North Carolina. Given his background as one of the world’s most eclectic globe-trotting banjo players (and also husband/producer of Abigail Washburn, who has been known to sing in Mandarin Chinese), Fleck turned out to be a simpatico choice for the second Che Apalache album.
“I loved their intensity and commitment, and seeing the way people respond to the band,” Fleck said. “It was an unusual set of circumstances that led to Joe moving down there and teaching the guys about bluegrass. I do see parallels in other parts of the world, but haven’t seen it in South America. The music has a way of reaching out and pulling people into it.”
Latin flavors, accents, and rhythms pepper the dozen songs on Rearrange My Heart, seamlessly blending with bluegrass arrangements in a brew that’s equal parts worldly and old-school. In a nod to Troop’s time in Japan, there’s “The Coming of Spring,” which grew out of a jam session that wandered far afield and just seemed to call for lyrics in Japanese.
Not surprisingly, Rearrange My Heart is getting most of its attention for songs that dramatize issues of immigration. One of its most notable songs is “The Wall” (reprised from Latin Grass), done as a cappella gospel with a pointed message against President Trump’s proposed border wall: “If such nonsense should come true / then we’ll have to knock it dooooooown.”
Then there’s “The Dreamer,” a song about Mexican-born North Carolina activist Moises Serrano. Subject of the film Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America, Serrano was brought to America as an infant by his parents and grew up in Yadkinville, North Carolina, not far from Troop’s hometown of Winston-Salem. Serrano has taken an activist’s role in speaking out against the Trump administration’s immigration policies, particularly those involving his own status as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) “Dreamer.” Che Apalache’s song about him tends to generate a lot of mid-song applause live, followed by tears.
“Some say we’re talking about politics, when I think it’s human rights and activism at the core of our narrative,” Troop said. “A lot of scary things are being said about Latin American immigrants. Most undocumented immigrants are fleeing bad situations. There need to be legal ways to immigrate, with policies to address it in a humanitarian way where people aren’t starving in the desert. The only thing that would compel anyone to walk across the desert with their children is desperation.”
Of course, his band’s willingness to put itself out there has led to a lot of impassioned debates between Troop and American listeners who disagree.
“People always try to spin things and say things like, ‘Well, you immigrated legally to Argentina,’” Troop said. “That’s apples and oranges. Immigrating anywhere is easy for someone like me, a middle-class kid who went to university. And those same people don’t seem to care about the crazily nefarious things the U.S. has done in Latin America — trade policies, meddling in dictatorships, arming military coups.
“Yeah,” he concluded, “I feel like we’re trying to have a dialogue with people who don’t have any empathy.”
Che Apalache is No Depression‘s Spotlight band for August 2019. Look for more from this band all month long!