Appalachia Meets Argentina
Appalachia Meets Argentina
A Q&A with Joe Troop
Of Che Apalache
By Geoff Gehman
Joe Troop likes to topple walls. The wall between the Appalachian music he grew up on in North Carolina and the Argentinian music he discovered while studying Spanish in Spain. The wall between himself and three of his best students in Buenos Aires, his adopted home. The wall between bigoted politicians and the people they serve poorly, especially Latinos and gays.
Walls fall in Che Apalache, the lively, lyrical, tri-national quartet Troop launched in 2013 when he realized his pupils excelled at bluegrass, his specialty. Named partly after a common greeting in Argentina (“che” means “buddy” or “pal”), the ensemble consists of Troop, a fiddling lead singer raised in Winston-Salem; Pau Barjau, a singing banjoist from Mexico; Argentinian guitarist/vocalist Franco Martino, whose father taught him Southern rock, and mandolinist/vocalist Martin Bobrik, an Argentina native who learned banjo from YouTube. Clustered around an old-school circle microphone, they blend South American dance rhythms with high, lonesome vocals from southern America, sometimes tapping on their instruments to amplify tangos, reels and ballads in two languages. Their 2017 debut album “Latin Grass” (RGS Music/Impar) features everything from a funky, almost performance-art version of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme, to “The Wall,” an a cappella gospel call for busting borders with the ringing rhyme: “Yes, our leaders are so ripe with sin/They feed us chants to rope us in.”
Che Apalache has been spotlighted on the NPR program “All Things Considered” and showcased at the Kennedy Center. The musicians will perform Sept. 13 at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. Below, in a conversation while driving the band van from Kansas to Indiana, Troop discusses music as life, life as music, and singing and living in another tongue.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul?
A: Good gracious, that’s a hard question to answer. I think it started happening to me when I was a really little kid with a Beach Boys song. It was so long ago I don’t even remember the name of the song. I began listening to folk and acoustic music when I was 12 or 13 when I heard Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.” I first heard bluegrass music when I was 14, when my brother gave me a mix tape of bluegrass bands. That’s when I first fell in love with bluegrass. It wasn’t just one specific song; it was the Appalachian style. I started listening to everyone from the Osborne Brothers to Earl Scruggs to Doc Watson to Bela Fleck and other more experimental acoustic musicians. .
Q: Who was your first musical mentor and what pivotal lesson did he or she give you that you like to string along?
A: One of my mentors was a guitar teacher named Billy Constable. He played banjo but with me he was always playing guitar; he also encouraged me to play fiddle. Billy put out the idea to play with openness and confidence. Don’t worry about who’s listening. Don’t anxiety it to death. Just play from the heart
I had a fiddler friend who helped me with music and life. Through him I learned to view music as a social thing, that playing music is entwined with friendship. That’s the way it is with most Appalachian string-band musicians. It’s a culture where you just get to know each other. It’s such a beautiful social world, with a spiritual path.
Q: You were a college student, studying Spanish in Spain, when you fell under the spell of Argentinian music, culture and people. What made you make the big leap to living in Buenos Aires?
A: I was 19 and in my second week in Spain when I met a guy playing Argentinian accordion, or bandoneon, on the streets. I said: “I’m a violinist; can I play music with you?” He brought me to his house, where I met all these vibrant characters from this unknown place to me, Argentina. I identified with them pretty quickly. Argentinians are really very funny, very idiosyncratic. They have this dry sardonic humor that I felt very attracted to from the get-go. They’re also very touchy-feely. They love to hug; they love to spend a lot of time around the table talking. That’s when I realized I could be a comfortable person outside my culture; that’s when I became a world musician just by default.
After college I taught English in Japan or two years. When I returned to the States I was in a bluegrass band for a year. Then I quit my band, sold all my shit, and moved to Buenos Aires without telling anyone. I wanted a challenge; I wanted to reinvent myself. I don’t know if I would have the energy to make the move now because I have a career in music that requires a lot of time and energy. At the same time I know I’m a resilient person; I could probably deal with a huge change in culture because I’ve done it. Still, I wouldn’t choose to do it because I’ve already done it.
Q: You’ve said you decided to form Che Apalache after you realized your three best students—Franco, Martin and Pau—were performing better than you. What was the toughest thing to teach these non-Americans about bluegrass? I’m thinking it must have been tricky for them to pick up those high, lonesome cluster harmonies in “The Wall.”
A: It was a huge process. Martin is a naturally strong tenor. Franco and Pau had never sung until I made them sing. I told them that in bluegrass you have to sing. They told me “I don’t sing” and I told them “Oh yes, you do” and they told me “Oh well, I guess I have to sing.” Pau had never explored bass singing but his speaking is so low I said: OK, you’re the bass singer now. We’ve sung four-part gospel harmonies for so long, we’re an organism. We’ve definitely become an instrument; we’re definitely ahead of the curve.
Q: “The Wall” is a call for breaking down walls of miscommunication or no communication. Have you performed it in places near the U.S.-Mexico wall and, if so, did you have any truly memorable reactions?
A: We haven’t performed in any border towns. We performed “The Wall” in Amarillo [Tex.], for the Navajo nation in Arizona, and in various places in the South. It was well received, although the message made some people irate. It has a strong point of view and a strong style that resonates. It’s meant to short circuit ideologies, to challenge politicians who are beating around the bush trying to appeal to conservative constituencies. We’ll sing it anywhere.
We’re stretching our outreach. We’re scheduled to play for a charity at a community center in Winston-Salem, my hometown; for a Latino association in Greensboro, N.C. and the first LGBT section at the [Wide Open Bluegrass] festival in [Raleigh, N.C.] this month. Most bluegrass bands wouldn’t play for such diverse audiences; we’re not like most bluegrass bands.
Q: What was the impact, the spinoff, from your five-week U.S. tour last year sponsored by state humanities groups in North Carolina and Virginia?
A: We had our first huge reception when we did a CD release party in the camping area at the Appalachian String Band Festival in Clifftop [W.Va.]. It was the most enthusiastic response in our fledging career. Winning [the neo-traditional] competition there was a feather in our cap.
In June we did our first tour of Argentina outside Buenos Aires. Because our program is not all American—we do a mix of Latin American music, Argentinian folk music and Appalachian/Americana folk music–we were sponsored by smaller municipalities in the province of Buenos Aires. It’s very hard to tour down there because it’s hard to get funding because there’s an economic crisis. There’s so much financial despair we’ve decided we can reach more people by playing for free, by passing the hat. Our band is privileged because we can play in the U.S., where the currency is stable. In the near future we’ll concentrate on making dollars and making our small contribution to improve lives in Argentina through the joy of music.
Q: Some opera singers think that singing pop tunes is liberating because the experience is so different. Is singing in Spanish liberating for you because it’s not your native tongue?
A: I don’t know if it’s liberating but I do know it’s natural. I’ve become much more confident singing in Spanish the past three years because I’ve been living in Spanish day to day. I buy bread in Spanish, I buy detergent in Spanish, I pay my rent in Spanish. Our band speaks in Spanish on the road. I think in Spanish, I dream in Spanish, I have had sex in Spanish [laughs]. It’s not my native language but it’s a huge part of my life.
When things are experiential you don’t have to analyze that much. You don’t want to be over-conscious because then you stop creating your stories, you stop living your stories. I haven’t asked the other members of the band this [question] but I’m sure when they sing Southern gospel it’s something experiential to them. They feel it’s something they’ve lived, something they’re living.
Q: So, Joe, what tops your Bucket List?
A: What I’d really like to do is to play more events in rural areas. I think a lot of rural people don’t get to experience music and the other arts; they don’t get enough access to those symbolic, edgy things that challenge people to think differently. I don’t know how to make it happen but I’d love to perform in southeast Asia, in India or Pakistan. And I’d love to bring the band to Mexico so we could know more about Pau’s homeland
Q: And what tops your Fuck It List?
A: I want to make the South a nesting place for diversity. I want to burn to the ground some of the most repugnant politicians in North Carolina. I’ve been given opportunities to be an activist in songs like “The Wall,” to criticize leaders who are walling off Latinos and other minorities. I’d like to be a queer activist back in North Carolina, where I was a closeted gay teenager. I’m more comfortable now, so I want to go back and rub it in the faces of people who hated gay people in the ’90s. I want to shame them for being bigots and bullies. I want to make them get down on their knees and beg for forgiveness, make them squirm and man up.
Q: Has your Paganini/performance-art version of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” spurred “Beverly Hillbillies” fan clubs throughout Argentina?
A: I’m not sure that Argentinians know that it’s the theme song to an American TV show. I do know that in Argentina there’s a lot of interest in eastern European folk music, so people enjoy it when we go into our Balkan folk-music tangent. They never get the bluegrass rhythms right when they clap with us but they definitely nail the Balkan rhythms.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He digs Joe Troop’s song “Cornfed Bluegrass Man,” which includes the sing-along-able line ”I’m drunk as a skunk in a pickup truck with a corndog in my hand.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.