SPOTLIGHT: Che Apalache on Creating Change One Person at a Time
Photo by Mauro Milanich and Andrés Corbo
In 2010, I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, with only a suitcase, banjo, and fiddle. Buenos Aires has a vibrant underground scene, but few musicians make it off of performing alone. Luckily for me, there were no 5-string banjo teachers in town when I showed up. So, for lack of better resources, anyone interested in playing the instrument wound up coming to me for lessons, including my current bandmates. Banjo became my primary source of income.
My artistic focus in Argentina until 2016 was a duo that I formed with the brilliant double-bassist Diego Sánchez. We played our Appalachian and Latin American folk fusion all over Argentina, and we even did two US tours. But along the way, wanting to also expose audiences to traditional bluegrass, I started a side project with some of my multi-instrumentalist students. The idea of having a bluegrass band in Buenos Aires was thrillingly avant-garde!
Over the years we unleashed that high lonesome sound at rooftop parties, dive bars, restaurants, parks, cultural centers, and occasionally even proper venues. For a long time there was a rotating cast, but in 2016 it became clear to me that my current bandmates weren’t just hobbyist musicians; they were seriously dedicated to bluegrass in a way I never saw coming. Pau, Franco, and Martin all had a spiritual connection to the genre that was incredibly inspiring.
I decided to reach out to some folks in the US to see if there might be a way to finance a cultural immersion trip to the Appalachian region. The Virginia Folklife Program and the North Carolina Humanities Council generously gave us grants, and in 2017, we were able to attend both the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop, West Virginia, and the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Virginia.
In the months preceding our trip, we decided to record an album, but we wanted it to be something authentic. Reflecting on the symbolic importance a Latin American bluegrass band could have in the United States, we decided to tackle a new repertoire, one evoking images from Appalachia to the Andes with a message of unity. As soon as we started exploring this concept, Che Apalache underwent a mystical transformation and began identifying as a “latingrass” ensemble.
The rest is history: We released our album and made the trip. The old-time and bluegrass communities were overwhelmingly supportive! They encouraged us to try to make a career out of this. We’re currently on our sixth US tour and have just released our second album, Rearrange My Heart, which was recorded this past February in Béla Fleck’s basement. These two years have been a magical whirlwind, and we can hardly believe our good fortune. We certainly want to make good use of the platform we’ve been given.
Che Apalache is often seen as a symbol of unity at a time when division-based politics are undermining the hope for solidarity in the United States. In discussions about the border, the media has perpetuated a dichotomy: On one side you have rural white people, on the other you have Latin Americans.
The overarching mission of Che Apalache is to imagine new spaces for unity and to challenge false narratives. We reject the notion that white Southerners and Latin Americans can’t inhabit the same spaces. Bluegrass as a genre has partly fallen into the clutches of this narrative, hence the splattering of Confederate flags at many festivals. When even musical gatherings become a safe space for white nationalism, division-based politics have achieved their goals. But when two Argentinians, a Mexican, and a North Carolinian sing four-part a cappella gospel against the border wall, or when we cultivate an empathetic view of a DACA Dreamer through bluegrass, we like to think we’re dismantling this narrative.
The day of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — the day James Alex Fields Jr. murdered Heather Heyer as he drove a car into a crowd of peaceful protesters — Che Apalache was at the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax. The band competition was that evening, and we decided to perform our song “The Wall.” There aren’t many young bluegrass groups that sing four-part gospel these days, and there are even fewer, if any, bluegrass gospel songs that denounce white nationalism. As soon as we launched into the song, we could sense the crowd’s enthusiasm. In Southwestern Virginia that style of singing immediately resonates with people. But the content of our lyrics challenged the area’s pervasive status quo. When we got to the part about tearing down the wall, many people cheered in support, while a few got up in arms, but many others just kept listening attentively, figuratively scratching their heads. Music disrupts expectations.
A couple months earlier, I attended the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture regional conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s where I met Moises Serrano, who was there to talk about the documentary in which he is featured, Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America. Moises is an undocumented DACA recipient and immigration rights activist from near where I’m from in North Carolina. I found his courageous story inspiring, and I eventually asked him for permission to write a song about him, to which he consented.
“The Dreamer” was without a doubt the most challenging song I’ve ever tried to write. I went through months of revisions, working closely with Moises to accurately tell his story, which was finally achieved only days before going into the studio. We’ve been performing this song live for several months now, and it often generates intense emotional reactions. A couple weeks back, at RockyGrass in Colorado, a man came up to me after our show to talk about what it meant to him. He was from the rural eastern part of the state, and he told me about his friendship with a Mexican man who’d done his landscaping for 30 some years. With notable concern he remarked, “I’m not sure if he’s undocumented. I’ve never asked him.” He then walked away, still with a worried look on his face. It seemed like Moises’ story had fostered new empathy in him toward his friend. Music humanizes through storytelling and bridges the political divide between dissimilar people.
There was a time when I thought that trying to take a stand for social justice was futile. I was so concentrated on the magnitude of the problems we’re facing that it seemed like it wasn’t worth making an effort to change them. But through Che Apalache, I have realized that though we can’t all be politicians, we can still affect one person at a time. In prioritizing each and every gig we play and each and every individual connection we make, we can create new narratives through music. It’s okay not to singlehandedly save the world, but we can at least put hope in every interaction.
Che Apalache is No Depression‘s Spotlight band for August 2019. Read our feature story on the band here, and watch of a video of them performing the title track from their new album, Rearrange My Heart, here.
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