Joe Troop has returned to his hometown for musical performances with a band that embodies his own ideals of tolerance, diversity and unity.
Troop, who grew up in Winston-Salem, will perform at the Hispanic League’s Fiesta, with his band, Che Apalache.
The festival is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 14 in the area around the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts at 251 N. Spruce St. in downtown Winston-Salem.
Troop leads the four-man string band, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their music is a fusion of Appalachian bluegrass and Latin American folk styles. He describes it as “Appalachia meet the Andes.”
Their most recent album, “Rearrange My Heart,” was produced by their musical hero and banjo legend, Bela Fleck, who calls them, “... a band to watch.” Their Winston-Salem performance is part of a U.S. tour that includes Alaska.
Troop’s search for meaning and identity took him to Spain at the age of 19, then to a rural mountain village in Japan, and back again to the U.S. Disillusioned with the music scene, he moved to Argentina, where he has lived for the past 10 years. He began teaching banjo there, which led to forming a band with his students. They’ve been performing professionally since 2016.
Troop says audiences respond differently to their music.
“Some of our repertoire immediately resonates for bluegrass audiences, while other elements resonate more with Latinos. But the fusion of the two resonates with Latinx people raised in the U.S.,” Troop says. “Fiesta is going to be really great. I just can’t wait. It’s in my hometown and a homecoming in a way. It’s the perfect scenario.”
The cultural ambassador
Troop has been interested in other cultures since he was a kid.
“Anytime I met people from foreign countries, I was fascinated by them and I wanted to know everything about them. Everything foreign appealed to me always,” he says. “I was just a really curious kid about the world. While I was entrenched in my regional culture. I wanted, needed more.”
He went to Spain for two years through a student exchange program at UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I loved being a foreigner,” he says.
There, he befriended Argentinians, who would eventually lead him to Buenos Aires.
He taught English in a rural Japanese village of 600 people. As the only Westerner there, he learned to speak Japanese fluently. However, his fluency was always in question, and he was often excluded in conversations.
Troop is also gay and says his sexuality influenced his desire to explore the world.
“It was good to get out of the confines of Puritan America. I wanted to go discover everything in other societies,” he says.
Sometimes people question why he draws attention his sexuality, to which he answers: “It forged my identity. Being ‘othered’ affects how you develop your own world view. It’s a blessing. If I hadn’t been gay, I could have easily been just another entitled white guy from N.C. It helped me cultivate more empathy.”
The musical ambassador
Music wasn’t a significant presence in his family, Troop says. He was interested in singing and musical theater, but he wasn’t exposed to music as a lifestyle. He discovered bluegrass when he was 15, and found his passion.
“First and foremost, the sound was enchanting to me for some reason. ... It was, maybe the syncopation and instrumentation. I also have a natural proclivity for stringed instruments — the banjo and fiddle. All these techniques were fascinating, and I was just head over heels in love with it.
“The singing, three- and four-part harmony, the shared songs and the sense of community. If you learn 20 songs, all of a sudden you’re part of a community. It was a welcoming environment for a teenager to fall into.”
Troop was 26 when he moved to Buenos Aires. He taught banjo, fiddle, mandolin and all of the bluegrass classics. When it became apparent that a few of his students had progressed beyond the hobbyist level, he attained grants allowing them to visit the U.S. for a cultural immersion trip. Since their arrival in 2017, Che Apalache has won a band competition, was featured on NPR and received a personal request from famed banjoist Bela Fleck to produce their second album. Now, they have work visas, an agent and a record label.
“It’s gone remarkably well. ... It was unreal in the beginning,” Troop says. “We made friends with our hero (Fleck). Sometimes dreams come true.”
He says he feels his whole life has culminated into this moment. He speaks of lots of moments when he was “twiddling his fingers, plodding along.”
“Especially in my late 20s, wondering how on earth am I going to get ahead.”
His cultural curiosity and passion for music have come together, and he wants to bring people together through is music. His friendships and many years living in Latin America make him a strong ally for Latinos.
“I like to imagine a world where we would all be ambassadors,” he says.