The presidential election of 2016 left many Americans wondering if there was any way to bridge some deep cultural divides in this country. How could Mexican Americans, for example, find common ground with coal miners from Appalachia?
As you drive south from Roanoke, the radio dial is increasingly short on options. There’s pop – and country music, religious tunes and programming for those who prefer something spicy . That last choice is popular with a growing population of farm and forest workers from Mexico and Latin America – a group that hasn’t really integrated with long-time locals. To promote cross-cultural ties, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the North Carolina Humanities Council invited a unique Argentinian band to visit and play. It’s called Che Appalache.
“Che is ubiquitous in Argentina. It’s a way of saying buddy or homey or friend or pal,” says Joe Troop, an American musician who lives in Buenos Aires. "It’s the way you grab someone’s attention – like Hey, Che!, and Appalache means Appalachian.”
Troop teaches banjo. That’s how he met Martin Bobrik.
“I’ve seen banjos and bluegrass music in cartoons when I was a little kid. Bugs Bunny and Doug played the banjo," he recalls. "Also thanks to YouTube and the Internet I found out that the name of the style was bluegrass.”
Franco Martino and Pau Barjau also signed up for lessons.
“We’re all globalized people. We got to the banjo because of this globalization, but there’s nothing like sitting down and seeing a bluegrass jam live,” he says.
Together they play a fusion of traditional Latin songs and blue grass, using Appalachian instruments, for example, to present a tango.
“We had to start from step one," says Troop. "It was, ‘What’s a banjo roll? What’s a G-run? What is this culture? How is the syncopation? It’s not like Latin American folk at all, so it was a learning process, but they’re very fast.”
And at other times they present traditional mountain tunes without a hint of their Hispanic roots.
Troop has also instructed band members on the subtleties of bluegrass performance.
“Basic etiquette. How to kick off a song. How to end a song. How to deliver things with confidence. You gotta’ put it out there, you know what I mean. You can’t be timid. That off the cuff nature of American music – I try my best to impart that.”
And he’s schooled them in body language on stage.
“Some people use their eyes more. Some people gesticulate more, but some of the obvious ones are + when it’s time to end a song, people will stick their leg in the air, or you could just say, ‘Here’s the last time through,’ and it seems easy, but when you’re in the middle of a song if you don’t understand those cues you’ll keep going and then you’ll play an extra chord, and it will sound wonky, and you’re the guy that messed up the jam.”
So far, Bobrik says, the sound hasn’t caught fire in Argentina’s capital.
“The people that come to see us in Buenos Aires – we’re like something exotic, classy, which bluegrass is not that."
"Are you saying bluegrass isn’t classy?" Troop demands, with mock indignation.
"It can be," Bobrik concedes, "but many times we wish that people would get a little bit drunk and start dancing. They are always sitting with their hands on their chins saying, ‘Oh, listen to that. That’s really interesting.’”
But during a month-long visit to Appalachia, Troop says their sound was a hit.
“Sons and daughters of Latin Americans that were born in the United States coming up to us in tears, saying, ‘You gave me an artistic voice. I identified with you guys.’ And then there are some people who would love to believe in the unity of the Americas as this larger continent that’s coming out of colonization and has this very similar past.”
And at the Old Fiddler’s Convention, this song – called The Wall – won an enthusiastic response from a largely Appalachian crowd.
There’s all kinds of talk ‘bout building a wall down along the Southern border.
‘bout building a wall between me and you
Lord, and if such nonsense should come true
then we’ll have to knock it down
‘Cause that idea won’t fly so high
as a wingless bird in a rock hard sky
So, no siree, we won’t comply
we’re going to stand our ground
To love thy neighbor as thyself is a righteous law to live by
But leaders sing a different song
they break us up so they stay strong
and ignorantly we’re strung along
until we meet our doom
Yes, our leaders are so ripe with sin
they feed us chants to rope us in
but ‘fore to long we’ll find, my friends
that we’re penned against The Wall
Come friends, come friends. Come gather ‘round
For to sing, oh sing we joyfully!
Let us sing about a better world
Where different paths will soon unfurl
where no man’s blood shall stain the soil
Yes a land where freedom rings.