A North Carolinian who transplanted to Argentina to bring bluegrass music to the Latin American country nearly ten years ago has now been nominated along with his band for a Grammy Award — a story, he says, that highlights the importance of cross-cultural and transnational connections, which serve as major themes in his music.
Che Apalache, a four-man string band that blends Appalachian and Latin music, formed after Joe Troop, the group’s founder, moved to Argentina to teach the five-string banjo. Through his lessons, he met his “three most dedicated students” who’d eventually compose the rest of the band, Pau Barjau, Franco Martino and Martin Bobrik.
“I didn’t expect to make a living being a bluegrass musician. I was teaching and I missed performing and one of my mentors suggested I start a band, so I did,” Troop told NBC News. “I started out as their teacher, but pretty soon they were teaching me and we were all learning from each other.”
Though Che Apalache began as a bluegrass band, Troop said it wasn’t long before the band began “exploring the conceptions of fusion” and incorporating elements from different styles of music — especially since each of the band’s members are multi-instrumentalists. But it's not just the band's sound that reflected an amalgam of influences, but the songs’ subject matter as well.
Searing songs "challenge the immigration narrative"
The band’s album 2019 “Rearrange My Heart” — which was nominated for Best Folk Album alongside Andrew Bird, Patty Griffin, Gregory Alan Isakov and Joy Williams — features songs about immigration, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the border wall.
“Bluegrass is the sound of my home, and there are a lot of immigrants living in Appalachia, but we’re a globalized bluegrass band, products of a globalized world,” Troop said. “It’s a natural thing, then, to write about immigration in our songs.”
Troop added that he feels as though it’s his responsibility as an artist with a platform to “challenge the immigration narrative in the U.S.” and to advocate for those immigrants who “are the fabric of the country.”
Yet Troop said that despite being able to empathize with immigrants since he too was an outsider when he moved to Argentina, writing about immigration has been a “learning process” for him.
One of Che Apalache’s songs, “The Dreamer” was inspired by the stories of undocumented immigrants living in North Carolina and Moisés Serrano, a queer DACA recipient and activist whose work was featured in the documentary “Forbidden: Undocumented & Queer in Rural America.”
Troop said he “didn’t see his own privilege” when working on the music video for the song, which is why it went through multiple revisions. He hopes the song can educate others who might not otherwise know about the fear of deportation immigrants face and the contributions they make to the U.S.
“We need large-scale immigrant reform and DACA is a part of that,” Troop said. “I hope we can can use our platform to be part of an unlikely story of immigration reform in the U.S. with a happy ending. You have to have a dream, right?”
Che Apalache has done performances at the border and in visits to migrant shelters. In fact, the group made a documentary about their experiences in the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico earlier this year.
When asked about the Grammy nomination, Troop said the experience was “surreal.” Che Apalache recently wrapped up its tour, so Troop was having coffee with his grandmother in North Carolina —his other bandmates were traveling — when he heard the news.
“We’re over the moon that our music means something to both people living in North America and Latin America,” Troop said. “That’s folk; that’s the point, to connect people.”