These three innovative bands are blending the songs and sounds of their Appalachian and Latin roots, giving this intersectional identity a human face and a global audience.
By Bethany Ison, Fall 2022
Do you tap your foot to a good fiddle tune, or move your hips to the drum beats of a reggaetón hit? If so, you’ve got to check out the music of Appalatin, Lua Project, and Che Apalache.
Appalachian culture is a critical part of Kentucky’s culture as a whole. Despite stereotypes depicting Appalachia as a homogenous group of poor white hillbillies with southern accents, the area is surprisingly diverse. As of 2020, 5.6% of the Appalachian population identified as Hispanic or Latino, up from 4.2% in 2010 and 2% in 2000 (“Population”). Appalachian Kentucky has a comparatively low Hispanic or Latino population at 1.9%, but this number is expected to rise (“Population”). Migrants from Central and South America are coming to Appalachia for jobs in factories and on farms (Grimley). These immigrants bring with them their stories, values, languages, instruments, and folk traditions, which over time blend with the pre-existing culture. Fusion between Appalchian and Latin traditions has been especially fruitful in the field of music, where groups like Appalatin, Lua Project, and Che Apalache are increasing the visibility and voice of our “Appalatin,” “Mexilachian” neighbors.
Appalatin formed in 2006 at a Heine Bros Coffee in Louisville. Band members include Yani Vozos and Steve Sizemore from Kentucky, Luis de Leon from Guatemala, Marlon Obando from Nicaragua, Fernando Moya from Ecuador, and Luke McIntosh from Australia (“Appalatin”). Appalatin plays a lot of traditional folk music, incorporating instruments from Appalachian and Andean folk traditions such as mandolins, charangos, and pan flutes. They have also released three original albums filled with “up-tempo songs that are unashamedly positive” (McPherson). Two great examples sure to lift your spirits are their hits “A Little Bit of Love” and “Canta Mi Gente.” Additionally, Appalatin’s lyrics “tackle an array of serious topics: empowerment, human rights, environmentalism, freedom” (McPherson). They use their platform to fight for what matters to their community, all while weaving between Spanish, English, and Quechua. Appalatin also does education programs at schools around the country teaching about their origins and instruments to support the development of global competencies.
Estela Knott and her husband David Berzonsky formed Lua Project in rural Virginia in the early 2000s; Matty Metcalfe and Christen Hubbard joined the band later (“About”). They describe their music style as “Mexilachian,” combining Appalachian old-time and Mexican folk music – specifically Son Jarocho, as well as Jewish and eastern European traditions (“About”). Lua Project has re-recorded many popular folk songs, while also creating original content that touches on “contemporary themes, about families and people and work and loss” (“About”). Many of their lyrics are inspired by Knott’s own experiences of growing up in Appalachia with her Mexican mother. In the catchy bilingual song “Mexilachian Breakfast,” Knott explores her mixed cultural identity through the food she eats, tying in themes of home and human connection. Lua Project released their first EP on Spotify in July 2022, with guest artist and music scholar Sophia Enriquez. Like Appalatin, Lua Project also performs at schools nationwide to increase awareness and understanding of their intersectional culture, music, and dance.
Che Apalache is by far the widest known band of the three with 1,597 monthly listeners on Spotify, compared to 122 for Appalatin and 27 for Lua Project. It began as a Bluegrass band in Buenos Aires in 2013, with members Joe Troop from North Carolina, Pau Barjau from Mexico, and Martin Bobrick and Franco Martino from Argentina (“About the Band”). Eventually they decided to incorporate Latin American styles too, tying together tango, flamenco, mountain gospel, bluegrass, and more. While not super popular in their home country, Che Apalache went on tour in the rural US in 2018 and were a big hit (Hausman). Béla Fleck produced their Grammy-nominated second album (“About the Band”). A fan of Che Apalache said, “The lyrics and their music have some kind of story or background that come from the Latino culture. And I love the mixture of the Appalachian style. The combination of the cultures – it’s part of the story. It’s part of the U.S. right now. So I’m happy it’s happening” (Hausman). For instance, their most popular song, “The Dreamer,” tells the story of Moises Serrano, who moved from Mexico to North Carolina with his family when he was 18 months old. The bilingual song is an acknowledgement of the thousands of immigrant kids and families living in Appalachia, so that they do not remain invisible.
Ultimately, Appalatin, Lua Project, and Che Apalache fuse the instruments and themes of Appalachian and Latin music to transport you to a world without boundaries or borders, where cultures intermingle and the results are acoustic masterpieces. These bands celebrate a multifaceted, regional identity that too often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. This Appalachian-Latin fusion is an integral part of Kentucky’s culture. Be sure to keep these bands on your radar… without a doubt there are more great songs ahead.
- “About.” LUA, http://luaproject.org/about.
- “About the Band.” Che Apalache, https://www.cheapalache.com/.
- “Appalatin.” KET, 15 Feb. 2015, https://www.ket.org/muse/appalatin/.
- Grimley, Matt. “Finding a Common Language: Appalachian Latinos Strive for Integration.” The Appalachian Voice, Appalachian Voices, 5 Dec. 2012, https://appvoices.org/2012/12/05/finding-a-common-language/.
- Hausman, Sandy. “Che Apalache Hopes to Open Minds and Ears with Their Latin Bluegrass Fusion.” NPR, NPR, 14 Aug. 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/08/14/638629428/che-apalache-hopes-to-open-minds-and-ears-with-their-latin-bluegrass-fusion.
- McPherson, Damien. “Appalatin Combine Latin Music and Mountain Folk.” LEO Weekly, 13 July 2011, https://www.leoweekly.com/2011/07/appalatin-combine-latin-music-and-mountain-folk/.
- “Population and Age in Appalachia.” Appalachian Regional Commission, 14 June 2021, https://www.arc.gov/appalachias-population/.
- Enriquez, Sophia. CANCIONES DE LOS APALACHES: LATINX MUSIC, MIGRATION, AND BELONGING IN APPALACHIA. 2021. Ohio State University, Doctoral dissertation. OhioLINK Electronic Theses and Dissertations Center, http://rave.ohiolink.edu/etdc/view?acc_num=osu1619115145510202.
- Enriquez, Sophia M. “‘Penned Against the Wall’: Migration Narratives, Cultural Resonances, and Latinx Experiences in Appalachian Music.” Journal of Popular Music Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, 1 June 2020, pp. 63–76., https://doi.org/10.1525/jpms.2020.32.2.63.
- “Larry Bellorín and Joe Troop Blend Música Llanera and Bluegrass into Egalitarian Nuevo South Brew.” Larry & Joe, https://www.larryandjoe.com/.
- Margolies, Daniel S. “Latino Migrant Music and Identity in the Borderlands of the New South.” The Journal of American Culture, vol. 32, no. 2, June 2009, pp. 114–125., https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1542-734x.2009.00702.x.