Che Apalache Uniquely Melds Latin with Bluegrass on Bela Fleck Produced ‘Rearrange My Heart’ (ALBUM REVIEW))

While much of today’s disturbing rhetoric on immigration aims to divide, Che Apalache is a band forming a bridge between North and South America, infusing traditional bluegrass with Latin stylings as an American-led band of primarily Latin American musicians. Theirs is both an amazing sound and a compelling story. Leader Joe Troop grew up in foothills of Appalachian North Carolina, becoming a talented fiddler steeped in bluegrass and all-night jam sessions. Before long though, as a gay man in that region, he no longer felt welcome and became a world traveler. Beginning in Europe, he not only learned some different musical styles but studied Spanish in Spain, spent summers in Morocco, and later moved to Japan to teach English. Along the way he continued to play fiddle, infusing his music with elements of flamenco, jazz manouche, and swing. In 2010 he moved to Argentina and began teaching bluegrass. That’s where the band’s story essentially begins.

Che Apalache, led by Troop, features two Argentinians – Franco Martino (guitars) and Martin Bobrik (mandolin). Banjoist Pau Barjau hails from Mexico. They impressed iconic banjoist Bela Fleck who first met them at his Blue Ridge Banjo camp last year. He was so taken in by their sound that he signed on to produce Rearrange Your Heart. Fleck says, “I love to work with music that intrigues, excites and inspires me, and that describes Che Apalache to a ‘T’! Part of the intrigue and inspiration, apart from the melding of cultural sounds, is the political stance Troop takes, which is often at odds with bluegrass norms, to put it mildly. 

Troop and bandmates, who come from different places, openly want to challenge conventional thinking. There are more cultural styles in this music than most readers, and this writer included, are familiar with, making the album intriguing from the onset. Forgive some of this terminology but feel free to Google it. They open with a traditional greeting in the Uruguayan murga style before launching into “Maria” which has touches of candombe, flamenco, and Spanish Sephardic Jewish music. Most of the songs are sung in English but some are done totally in Spanish and some contain both. 

Three songs in comes the emotive “Dreamer,” written about Troop’s friend Moisés Serrano, a queer North Carolinian immigrant from Mexico and a DACA recipient. Moisés’ advocacy has been filmed in the feature-length documentary, Forbidden: Undocumented & Queer in Rural America. The five-time award-winning film was recently honored by the Television Academy. “Forbidden” was one of seven programs honored for creating awareness, enlightening, educating and/or positively motivating audiences. Moisés officially became a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in May of 2018.

This kind of approach by Troop is purposeful. He fully understands Appalachian and Southern audiences and first wants to acquaint them with relatively familiar music, before subverting the narrative. This is a band that spent years perfecting Stanley Brothers-like harmonies and Troop himself was first inspired by Doc Watson at age 14. The Stanley Brothers sound is the backdrop for “The Wall” with its direct lyrics lamenting Trump’s rhetoric. The approach can be risky, as you’d imagine. Consider that they sang this song at a famous Virginia fiddler’s convention the same day that Nazis marched in the streets of nearby Charlottesville. They had to drop everything and seek cover when an enraged audience member stormed the backstage to attack them. Here’s just one verse – “yes, our leaders are so/ripe with sin/they feed us chants to rope us in/but someday soon we’ll find,/my friends that we’re pinned/against the wall.”

Some of the messaging is direct, clothed in glorious harmonies, but throughout the musicianship dazzles as traditional cultural sounds mesh together beautifully. The American Dream was always associated with the melting pot that we are. Che Apalache has put that to music. You can choose to ignore the controversial aspects or embrace it. Either way, this is truly exciting, innovative music.

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