Argentina is about 5,200 miles away from North Carolina. A considerable distance that could prohibit any kind of cultural influence from making its way from North to South America, but this is music we’re talking about, and just as the tango made its way out of Argentina and to the rest of the world, bluegrass music of North Carolina found its way to the underside of South America.
Five-thousand miles is, in fact, not enough space to keep American string band music from gaining a small foothold in Buenos Aires, and for that you can thank Joe Troop, a North Carolina native who, while spending two years of college studying in Spain, met a group of Argentinians and quickly fell for their culture. Post college, he moved to the country, taking with him a love of bluegrass and a love of teaching music. The result is Che Apalache, a band that features Troop on fiddle along with some of his best bluegrass students; Che Apalache will perform Tuesday at the Henry Strater Theatre.
“I had the idea of fusing my training in Appalachian folk music with the music from down here. So as I immersed myself in the underground scene, I set up shop as the resident bluegrass teacher,” Troop said. “Over the years, I taught thousands of hours of classes, mostly banjo. There was virtually no knowledge of bluegrass when I moved down, but I cultivated a bit of interest through teaching, and my current bandmates were my prized pupils. As they became proficient in the genre, we started a bluegrass band. We played straight-up traditional for several years, but in 2017, we were given grants to take a cultural immersion trip to the U.S. and that’s when we decided to try something more authentically us. We started exploring Latin American folk through our bluegrass techniques.”
While Argentina had no real bluegrass bands, it did have music that, like American folk and bluegrass, has roots in the rural areas of Argentina. It’s music that has been played in the country for centuries, a music loaded with songs and traditions that are passed from generation to generation.
Similarities between American bluegrass and Chacarera or Andean folk may be few and far between on a sonic level, but the social spirit is similar.
“All folk music has some factor that only folk musics have,” Troop said. “Fusing dissimilar genres of music requires experiential knowledge of the cultures they come out of. Culture and music are inseparable. If you study music long enough, you’ll find a similarity to bluegrass, and the world will say you’re crazy.”
Troop has become a self-named “trash-bassador” of bluegrass for Beunos Aires and the surrounding country of Argentina, or the lower half of South America. In a growing scene he calls “beautifully rough around the edges,” Troop has organized jams and produced Argentina’s first bluegrass festival, while his bandmates currently host an old-time jam.
Che Apalache could, however, be the most nontraditional bluegrass band of the growing bunch. While the lineup consists of guitar, fiddle, banjo and mandolin, their playing of traditional bluegrass can give way to each band member banging on their instrument as if a percussion instrument while playing a traditional Chamame folk tune and singing songs in Spanish.
Bluegrass has its traditionalists, and it’s likely purveyors of Argentinian folk music may also choose to keep it on the traditional side. So far, Che Apalache’s explorations and musical combinations are warming ears on both sides of the equator.
“I’d say we’re well-received by all factions since we’re code-switchers,” Troop said. “We try to blend in with our surroundings when we’re hanging. We all love keeping it traditional as much as we like to take magical unicorn rides through the stratosphere.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.