As a young man, Che Apalache leader Joe Troop left his native North Carolina and spent time working and playing music in other parts of the world — Spain, Morocco, and Japan, before settling in Argentina. He’s lived the immigrant experience as an American abroad, and that instilled in him a great amount of empathy for anyone attempting to do likewise in the States.
“People will talk about you in front of you, as if you weren’t there,” says Troop. “Being an immigrant takes a lot of courage.”
Troop and his bandmates — Argentina natives Franco Martino and Martin Bobrik, and Mexico native Pau Barjau — turn that appreciation into celebration and even activism on Che Apalache’s newly released Rearrange My Heart, produced by roots-music luminary Bela Fleck. Fusing Troop’s bluegrass background and fiddle playing with traditional music from Latin America and other parts of the world, the group merges cultures to smash through the boundaries often set up around many types of folk music.
“It’s a humanist statement,” says Troop. “There’s an amazing ability to empathize with humans all over the world — to hear their music, all you have to do is get online and listen to it.”
It’s an idea with which Troop had begun experimenting while teaching bluegrass to musicians in Argentina. After starting out as a predominantly straightforward bluegrass band with three of his students, Che Apalache (the name a nod to a common Argentine interjection) began combining traditional mountain music with the rhythms of cumbia, tango, and candombe they heard in the streets of Buenos Aires.
“I had developed certain songs that were like, ‘We should try this as a quartet,’” says Troop. “That’s when we started exploring ‘Latingrass’ as a concept and that’s when all the magic happened. It happened naturally. Because the guys had this in them.”
On Rearrange My Heart, this shows up in the lively rhythmic workout of “Maria” and the delicate, interweaving instrumentation of “24 de Marzo (Día de la Memoria).” But it expands outward from there, nodding to Troop’s time in Asia with “The Coming of Spring” and even hinting at Rajasthani folk music on the loping title track and its tricky 9/8 time signature.
“I don’t even know if they play in 9/8. I listen to a lot of Indian music, and that song captures it,” says Troop. “But it’s a mix. It’s got a lot of pop, bluegrass, and British Isles ballad-singing influence as well. It’s the mystical world music that comes from admiring all traditional music.”
The most straightforwardly bluegrass songs on Rearrange My Heart tend to be its most intensely topical. Troop, who identifies as a gay man, composed “The Dreamer” about his friend Moises Serrano, a fellow queer North Carolinian and DACA recipient who immigrated to the U.S. when he was a child. In “The Dreamer,” Troop sings of Serrano’s parents, their perilous journey from Mexico, and the hardships they faced as undocumented people in the U.S. “An immigrant child must face a life where dreaming is forbidden,” sings Troop, putting a human face on this story and challenging narratives about immigrants in this country.
“He’s every bit as much of a North Carolinian as me, but because he doesn’t have papers, because he’s undocumented, the trajectories of our lives have been vastly different,” says Troop.
Even more pointed is “The Wall,” an a cappella number that reaches across borders to suggest we all have more in common and in greater numbers than anyone who would try to stick a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. “If such nonsense should come true, then we’ll have to knock it down,” they sing, in four-part harmony. Troop and his bandmates then drive the triumphant message home, singing, “No man’s blood shall stain the soil of a land where freedom rings.”
“Sometimes we get standing ovations in the middle of the song,” says Troop. “But sometimes people just quizzically scratch their heads and have to digest this narrative because it’s in a style that resonates with them. It’s traditional Southern mountain gospel bluegrass so it resonates with people in the Appalachian region. But at the same time the narrative challenges the pervasive status quo. The overarching thing is that music disrupts expectations — or at least it can.”
It’s all part of Troop’s mission to “subvert from within,” as someone who grew up in a rural Appalachian community and sees a lot of misunderstanding about the complexity of that world as well, particularly from other liberal parts of the country. In his combination of bluegrass and global music with Che Apalache, Troop is creating space for awareness and conversation for people coming to those topics from different directions.
“I want to use bluegrass as protest music. That’s my M.O. — it’s a genre of music people still listen to,” says Troop. “There’s a big scene out there. I felt like I could contribute to that.”
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