By O’Hara Shipe
As a child, North Carolina-native Joe Troop was infatuated with the Spanish language. That passion followed him to college and then to Seville, Spain. While there, he became immersed in southern Spanish culture and was inspired by the culture’s vibrancy.
“I found the culture so different and fascinating. Amazingly, it wasn’t puritan—the people had different world views and idiosyncrasies, and it was wonderful,” recalls Troop.
Although ensconced in Spanish culture, Troop soon found himself deep within an expat community of Argentinians who fled their country during the wake of Argentina’s Great Depression. Lasting from 1998 – 2002, the economic depression caused a default on the country’s foreign debt but not before leading to the fall of the government and widespread riots. For many Argentinians, this was the second major economic collapse in their lifetimes.
“Argentina has a pretty fascinating and complex history,” explains Troop. “It’s a strange country because many times it has been on the brink of disaster and it always seems to claw its way back to varying degrees of stability. So many other countries would just drop off of the universe when facing that kind of economic ruin, but somehow Argentina keeps coming back.”
When Troop arrived in Argentina, the country was still experiencing the harsh effects of economic ruin, but that didn’t deter him. Armed with a fiddle and experience as a music teacher, Troop set up shop and began to teach his new community an alien form of music—bluegrass.
One of Troop’s early students--Martin Bobrik--recalls hearing banjo music as a child, but he says that he didn’t know much about bluegrass.
“I heard the banjo in cartoons and movies, and I always liked it so I would watch YouTube videos. People [in Argentina] call banjo music country music so when I looked it up on YouTube, it wasn’t what I expected. But then I found out about bluegrass,” laughs Bobrik.
Already an accomplished musician and street busker, Bobrik sought out bluegrass mandolin lessons from Troop. He was joined by two more of Troop’s most dedicated students—banjo player Pau Barjau and guitarist Franco Martino. The quartet became picking buddies, but it wasn’t long before their sound began to shift.
“I cultivated, as any immigrant in Argentina would, a sense of the aesthetic and magical X factor that flavors Argentinian music. The music differs from region to region, but there is something about that region of the world that makes it so distinctive, and I am really attracted to it,” says Troop.
The result of Troop’s fascination was the formation of an unlikely mashup of genres—bluegrass and Latin.
“Once the soundtrack of your life changes, it somehow takes root in everything you do. I think the musical fusion just kind of followed suit,” Troop explains.
In 2013, Troop, Bobrik, Barjau, and Martino formed Che Apalache and began to perform their unique genre-bending music. However, their Argentinian reception wasn’t quite what they had hoped.
“This music is very much an anomaly [in Argentina]. Most people don’t know what to make of our instrumentation and even though some people have been adamantly supportive of what we do, most of the time we get relocated to the ‘art music’ scene,” says Troop.
Rather than the raucous, free-spirited crowds Troop was accustomed to, he and his bandmates were surprised to see their fans sitting pensively during concerts.
“Sometimes you just want someone to get drunk and dance,” laughs Bobrik.
Che Apalache may not have won over the Argentinian masses, but they have been making waves in North America. Currently touring in conjunction with their new album, ‘Rearrange My Heart,’ the band has found a musical niche at bluegrass festivals across America.
But not all bluegrass fans have taken to Che Apalache.
When the band took the stage in Troop’s home state, they were met with sharp opposition.
“There were a lot of right-wingers present, and I got reprimanded when I got off stage. So, yeah, I had to deal with that and some very stern looks,” laughs Troop.
Bluegrass isn’t typically a genre one associates with reprimands from right-wingers, but Troop isn’t just playing fusion bluegrass--he’s using his music as a social platform to speak out against unjust immigration laws and homophobia.
“Playing in North Carolina is very intense because oftentimes you get people who expel hateful beliefs. You know, they have a lot of prejudices against undocumented immigrants and homosexuals—so basically the things that we symbolize. But it was great when we received a standing ovation, and those people had to sit there uncomfortable,” recounts Troop. “I definitely like dropping some ideological bombs when we play in right-wing locations.”
In Troop’s opinion, bluegrass is a genre that can lack pizazz and is often associated very narrowly with an Anglo-Saxon non-pluralist view of the world. So, he is happy to put his spin on the music to show fans that bluegrass can be more diverse and inclusive.
“We sing in Spanish and English. We pull in references from choral music and play with our instrumentation and singing styles. Each one of us has a different background in music, and we definitely try to fuse those styles,” says Troop.
But the men of Che Apalache aren’t always thinking about redefining genres or battling against hate. According to Troop, their lives off the stage are far less glamorous.
“We tour in a 2006 Toyota Sienna, and when you’re in the van it’s just fart jokes and people playing on their cell phones,” laughs Troop.
“And we always eat Mexican food,” adds Bobrik with a chuckle.
The band will be ditching their ride for some nicer Alaska Airlines digs as they make their way up to Alaska for a six performance mini tour that kicks off in Anchorage on Friday.
“We haven’t looked up anything about Alaska because we just want to experience it, but I will say that we are nervous about flying on one of the small 9-seater bush planes,” Troop admits.
You can catch Che Apalache in concert at the Discovery Theatre on Friday, September 20 at 7:30pm. Tickets start at $40.75 and are available at CenterTix.com.