Bluegrass fiddler and singer Joe Troop has come of age at just the ripe moment. Growing up a queer young man in the North Carolina Piedmont, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, Troop eventually felt unwelcome in his home region and left to become a world traveler. He studied Spanish language in Spain, spent summers in Morocco, and eventually moved to Japan to teach English. Carrying his music and fiddle with him, he picked up bits of flamenco, swing, and “Gypsy” jazz. In 2010 he immigrated to Argentina, making friends and teaching bluegrass.
He’s now returning to the U.S. with an international bluegrass band and a message about immigrants, refugees, walls, justice and love. The band is called Che Apalache (chay ah-pah-LAH-chay) featuring Franco Martino (guitar) and Martin Bobrik (mandolin) from Argentina, Pau Barjau (banjo) from Mexico, and Troop on fiddle and lead vocals. They play an exciting hybrid of traditional and modern North American stringband and Latin American folk and dance styles (plus an occasional excursion into Japanese). And they’ve earned the imprimatur of none other than Béla Fleck, who signed on to produce their debut album Rearrange My Heart.
It’s a generous disc of a dozen tracks that demonstrate the impressive range of these four young men. The first half of the program is a tour through what is only a portion of Che Apalache’s range. It begins with a charming bilingual introduction sung a-capella in a Uruguyan style called murga, then quickly launches into “Maria,” which sounds to me like a Cuban-Mexican hybrid sort of son with bits of candombe, flamenco and more, and of course played on four bluegrass instruments. Then it’s an English-language (mostly) song, the one that is the album’s main thematic statement, “The Dreamer.” It’s Troop’s ballad of a young friend of his, Moises Serrano, who also grew up queer in North Carolina after being brought to the region by his immigrant family when he was a toddler. Then a tango-like instrumental titled “24 de marzo,” that wouldn’t be out of place on a Flecktones album. It’s a commemoration of the Argentinian holiday known as the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice, which is celebrated on March 24. And finally we get to some bluegrass, the mid-tempo gospel “Rock Of Ages,” and the first side ends with the dramatic gospel-style unaccompanied, call-and-response “The Wall.” It’s a lovely, lively, harmony-drenched statement about our current leader’s efforts to build a wall along out southern border.
Troop sings lead on all of these songs so far in a supple tenor. On “Rock Of Ages” he even slips into a high counter-tenor reminiscent of Bill Monroe in its wild glory. And when the full band joins together in four-part harmony, which it does all over “The Wall” and in plenty of other spots as well, it’s a testament to just how beautiful this rugged style called bluegrass can be.
The second half begins with the lovely title track. “Rearrange My Heart” is a bluegrass hymn with more of those beautiful four-part harmonies, led by Troop and accompanied only by his fiddle for the first couple of verses before it kicks into an even more beautiful folk hymn in a newgrass setting that draws on rhythms and techniques from several world traditions. It’s moving in the extreme, even for a non-religious soul like me. A discordant Japanese folk song titled “The Coming Of Spring” gives way to the zippy bluegrass intro to “New Journey,” which I’d call a secular newgrass gospel song in three movements, then the curious “Milonga Del Cuis Empedernido,” which seems to be almost a nonsense song, in something like a rap style, the lyrics mostly in Spanish with snatches of French and Italian and English, set to a playful version of the Argentinian tango-adjacent style called milonga. Another bit of newgrass gospel via “Over In Glory / New Swing,” and things wind up with a post-modern tango called “Once Took Me In,” Troop’s homage to his adopted homeland.
Rearrange My Heart just brims with hope and joy and humanity, beautifully sung with great verve and played in more styles than you can count by musicians who are virtuosos on their instruments. Just reading about it, it ought not work at all, but they pull it off. This is one of the year’s most entertaining releases.
(Free Dirt, 2019)