Two years ago, Che Apalache blended in among a few thousand other campers at Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va. They jammed at their campsite and all over those sacred grounds, soaking in the atmosphere of Appalachian music, eager to share a sound they had dubbed “Latingrass.”
The band made a return trip to Galax this year, but a few days into their stay, they flew to Idaho to open for the Avett Brothers in front of 4,000 people.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Joe Troop, a Winston-Salem native who started Che Apalache three years ago, filling the lineup with three musicians who were his music students in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Troop has lived since 2010.
Riding a big wave of national publicity, Che Apalache recently began a 2.5 month tour to promote its new album, “Rearrange My Heart.” The band will take a short pause from the tour to play the Hispanic League’s Fiesta 2019 on Sept. 14 in downtown Winston-Salem.
The 27th annual festival will have four stages and will include a variety of entertainment options, from a parade of flags recognizing Hispanic heritage to story time to Zumba. There will also be plenty of dancing and music. Che Apalache will play at 2:45 p.m. on the main stage and 5:35 p.m. at the Modern Nissan Stage. Each set will be about an hour.
Troop, 36, is particularly pleased to play Fiesta 2019. Noting the political climate on matters of immigration, Troop said he and his bandmates — Pau Barjau (banjo), Franco Martino (guitar) and Martin Bobrik (mandolin) — look forward to sharing their music, which fuses traditional bluegrass with touches of Latin music. The band has not shied away from tackling hot-button issues in their songs, evident in song titles, “The Wall” and “The Dreamer.”
Both are songs on their new album, which Bluegrass Today called “astonishing.” Banjo legend Bela Fleck produced the album, which was released in August.
“This band has one foot in being activist oriented and one foot in being in business, and you have to balance those things. We’re trying to make a living and keep in mind that the symbolic importance of the band gives us responsibility,” Troop said. “And we have to be acutely aware that this band means something right now.”
In “The Dreamer,” Troop tells the story of his friend, Yadkin County activist Moises Serrano and his family’s harrowing journey from Mexico to North Carolina “where a grief-stricken daddy prayed through desperate nights/his family to be reunited.” Troop sings of blue lights and an unforgiving world: “An immigrant child must face a life/where dreaming is forbidden.”
Troop realizes that such statements may rankle some of the conservative circles in bluegrass.
People have occasionally stormed out of shows, slammed doors, and in one case, threatened the band (the man later apologized).
“But we’re finding that more people want to hear this narrative than you think,” Troop said. “I think people in the South have been caricaturized by the national media, and I think southerners are more open-minded than the media would lead us to believe.”
Songs such as “The Wall,” the unique blending of string instruments and Troop’s willingness to talk openly about his homosexuality give the band a compelling story, one that has drawn hordes of attention from national media. But the band also has some serious chops. After attending Fleck’s banjo camp, they asked him to produce their followup to 2017’s “Latingrass.”
“These guys are just so unique and fascinating that it was impossible for me to say no. Music should be about human expression and these guys are expressing it in spades,” Fleck said in an email. “Of the many projects that I’ve done, this is the one I’ve listened to the most after the project was released.”
With the band’s profile growing, Troop lined up a team to lighten his load. Though the band remains based in Argentina, it will spend about six months in the United States. Argentina is in the throes of an economic recession, a difficult time for a band to gain any sort of traction, especially with a sound rooted in the Appalachian Mountains.
Jill Martin-Byers, a veteran of the Winston-Salem music scene, is the band’s tour manager. She was recently lining up logistics, which included finding sea planes for the band’s concerts in Alaska.
“We feel grateful,” Troop said of the band’s sudden ascent. “There’s an appreciation for the good fortune we’re having. But we’re trying to person-up or woman-up to the opportunity.”