Episode Ten: Larry Bellorín & Joe Troop
Larry Bellorín hails from Monagas, Venezuela, and is a legend of Llanera, the traditional music of the Venezuelan plains. Joe Troop is from North Carolina and is a Grammy-nominated bluegrass and old-time musician. Both men are versatile multi-instrumentalists and singers on a mission to prove that music has no borders. As a duo they perform as Larry & Joe with a fusion of Venezuelan and Appalachian folk music on harp, banjo, cuatro, fiddle, guitar, maracas, and any instrument they want to include. Pat Jarrett from The Virginia Folklife Program met up with both musicians at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention in the summer of 2022.
Pat Jarrett: I wanted to share with you some recordings that I made this summer at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ convention. It's a small town in Southwest Virginia and the Fiddlers’ convention there is the largest and oldest in the world. Every summer anywhere from 20 to 50 thousand people flood into the town and turn the park and downtown into a city unto itself of musicians and pickers and music and it's pretty amazing. This year, I caught up with my friend Joe Troop and he brought a friend of his from North Carolina, Larry Bellorín. And Larry is from Venezuela. He plays Venezuelan folk music, traditionally on a harp but he plays all sorts of music. Larry & Joe, as they go by, kind of blend Venezuelan folk music with traditional Appalachian tunes. Joe often will play a banjo accompanying Larry's harp and in this clip they were playing a song called “Grinding the Coffee.”
Chris Boros: So this is really two cultures colliding is it not? Banjo and harp, I'm not sure if I've ever even heard that combination before.
PJ: I know. But it works so well together, doesn't it?
PJ: Yeah. I took my breath away. When Joe first told me about he and Larry doing this project, I honestly didn't know what to expect. He told me harp and he told me banjo, and I said, I don't know what to make of this. He calls it Venezualachian.
Larry Bellorín: Our project is very special because it wasn’t structured, it wasn’t something we planned on having. It was just magic.
Joe Troop: It’s true, we just met and it was like oh, thank you God, we were both struggling. What are going to do? The pandemic killed my band. The situation of his country collapsing led him to work in North Carolina in construction. We were both pretty defeated and wondering what our next move would be. You don’t want to lose the faith but sometimes you do. And then when we met we were like, we got it, baby. This is our project. I literally moved back to North Carolina because Larry was there. I didn’t know where I was going to live. But we met and I was like, this is what we’re going to do.
PJ: Joe has a reputation for this. Joe was born in Winston-Salem North Carolina. He's traveled all over the world. He's learned from players in Spain and Argentina. He lived in Argentina for close to a decade. He found success there with his band Che Apalache. He brought his bandmates from Che Apalache from Argentina to Galax in 2017, and that blew my mind. I remember sitting around with them in their camp listening to them jam all night and it was really cool. This current project is somewhat similar but it's hard to compare this to anything else.
CB: Isn't that what most musicians strive for, to create something that's either never been done before or something that is truly their own piece of work?
PJ: Well, that's an interesting thought because especially at some place like Galax, people are trying to do it the old way. People are trying to hold up traditions. That's an interesting bit of their story is Joe became so enamored of the banjo in his teenage years. When he first went to Galax, he had an awakening of sorts and just fell in love with the traditions of Appalachian music and he speaks about that a little bit.
Joe: People flock to it every year and set up camp in a big field and play music for a week. It’s a beautiful thing conceptually. It really inspired me when I was a teenager and I met a lot of really influential people in my life in that park. So, I’m very happy to have been a part of the Galax Fiddler’s Convention for the past couple decades or so. And I’m also thankful that I’ve been able to bring friends from other places, from Argentina, and now Larry is from Venezuela but he lives in Raleigh, it’s nice to experience the same thing I grew up going to but through a different lens.
PJ: Joe might not be from Virginia, but he's of these traditions. These traditions know no borders. And that's I think an interesting thing about Larry is that he's an asylum seeker. He’s seeking asylum from a very bad situation and he still isn't a citizen of the United States, but here he is bringing his beautiful music to Virginia.
CB: I think when you're dealing with art, that's the whole point is to bring cultures together. It's to take down borders when you're talking about music or anything that's an expression. And I wonder if anyone who goes to the Galax fiddle festival, are they looking at Joe and Larry and wondering, this isn't what we do, this isn't our tradition. Or are most people there open to this?
PJ: When I spoke to them this year, they ran into a few issues with some people. Larry showed up to a jam one morning and he got some dirty looks. But then he went in, it was right outside of a music store. And the thing is music doesn't know language. I'll let Larry finish the thought.
Larry: So whatever happens, they can look at me bad, they can look at me nicely, whatever. I’m still having fun listening to the music. And I looked into the store and I saw a harp. And I had the gumption of just walking on in. My wife speaks English, she’s bilingual, and my daughter. But I don’t care if I speak English or not. If I want to go into a store, I’m going into a store. The harp is not going to say hi, how are you, I speak English. And you definitely notice that Hispanics do not go to those places. You never stopped getting looked at, you’re always scrutinized. You can notice the absence of the Latino within the American community. Even in a place where the majority of the kids are Hispanic, I haven’t seen even one.
PJ: The harp doesn't speak English. I think that's the key. This music resonates and Larry may have gotten a dirty look here or there, but he loves the music. He said, I love what's going on here. I celebrate this music and so the recording I shared earlier was from a concert they did at encampment called Swing Town, which is an established campsite at the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention. It's a big old tent with a whole bunch of musicians that play swing music. Well, later that night, Larry went back and they were jamming and he brought out his maracas. And he was the star of the show. He was playing these maracas like I've never heard anybody and he was so accepted they were giving him a maracas breaks. Not everybody gets breaks, not everybody gets solos. They said all right everybody pause let's hear some maracas and he would go to town.
CB: Larry on the maracas!
PJ: I'll tell you what. Larry, on maracas is something to experience. The man plays maracas like Jimi Hendrix plays a guitar.
Larry: I felt so good that even though I don’t speak English, the guy was directing the jam, said that we’re going to play three measures and then Larry is going to jump in there and do a solo. And it was a very unique experience for me.
PJ: That was really cool. When I saw that, it was beautiful. You were alive. And they loved it.
Larry: I think that my heart really treasures being able to learn more music. And that’s why I fell in love with bluegrass at first sight, just like you would fall in love with a person.
PJ: This is not his first experience with bluegrass music. In this interview, he says when he was a kid in Venezuela, you don't hear banjos and so they would call it cowboy music because they heard it in cowboy movies. And there's that sound, the Western. And so that was his first experience, so he knew about it but when he came here to Galax, he came alive. He really fit right in there. There was a smile on his face the entire time that I was with him, because he was making music, he was hearing new music, he's making friends, and he was jumping into jams, it was really cool.
Larry: In Venezuela, this music is known as music of the Wild Wild West because of the movies. Cowboys with cowboy hats on horses with guns. I’m different. I’m Hispanic. I look different. But nonetheless, I did feel a lot of warmth and love from a lot of people. I felt accepted musically. And being able to share with certain characters, certain awesome musicians, and feeling the appreciation they have, the value that they give to what Joe and I are doing feels good. It was really cool to see people take a moment and sit down to watch what we do which is not bluegrass. It’s a festival of bluegrass and then a couple people with very different musics show up and even then it was a very beautiful moment.
CB: Well, there's no doubt that music brings people together of different cultures and beliefs. It doesn't matter, it just doesn't matter when you talk about music.
PJ: It really is a good medium for connection. And I think folk music being a community based music really highlights, that connectivity, because it is such a community-based expression and especially in places like Galax where there are these communities within communities and the Fiddlers’ Convention brings thousands of these people together and you can visit your neighbors, you can jam with people. You can see people you haven't seen in years and you can even stay the same tent the entire week and spend time with your loved ones, and it's like a family reunion. And you're playing Old-time music all night, that connectivity across cultures is something else that Larry and Joe talk about, they talk about the Nuevo South, the concept of the new South everybody is welcome and let's bring your traditions and I think Joe might say it better here.
Joe: Neuvo South Train is the name of our upcoming album. Neuvo South is a concept that was invented by a sociologist back in the 70s and or 80s. It’s just this idea of an evolving Southern United States region. The Appalachian region is different. There’s a lot going on here. There’s a lot of people at that park in Galax that are only aware of the honky fantasy of what this place is. It’s literally a fantasy. But then there’s a whole lot more people than them that live in intersectionality. And I hate that word because it sounds too academic, but they live across section of society – languages and cultures and food. The Nuevo South is that, highly impacted by Latinos who are here. That’s the largest growing demographic. It’s important that it be recognized what we are. That’s what we are. Because we are a society. We the people. Neither of us care about politics, neither of us care about perpetuating our own myths. We both want to go in with an open heart, an open mind, and learn. But I think it’s time to rejoice in the diversity of where we live.
PJ: So in that recording you can hear the ‘tap tap tap’ because Larry is tapping his fingers. A lot of musicians do that. They tap their fingers if they're idle, they're making a rhythm. I could hear it on the recording and I kept trying to tell him to quiet it down and Larry just absentmindedly [kept tapping]. They're really amazing humans, Larry and Joe, and together they have this chemistry. This musical chemistry.
Joe: Part of the inertia when meeting and feeling that magic, but also the community was so supportive. Durham. The triangle for us – we get a lot of love from the triangle.
Larry: When we played at our manager’s birthday party, it was a magic night.
Joe: He grabbed the cuatro at one point and I started playing old-time fiddle tunes. You just imagine all this pandemonium – December 27th madness in this cave in the middle of a pandemic. There was risk in the air. I had just been through covid and say had he. We were like, who cares. If the world ends tomorrow, it’s worth it.
Larry: 97% of the people I have met in this adventure have been good people.
Joe: We had a couple gigs in Ashville that were very impactful. People came and appreciated it. It meant something in their lives. And that’s just wind in our sails. To see what we do having great meaning for other people, that’s the biggest prize – money could never buy that. You could get all the money in the world to play for huge audiences of a bunch of anonymous people, but you don’t get to touch them. We like the small stuff, the community oriented stuff.
CB: You had mentioned that Larry got some looks from some people.
PJ: He did.
CB: Do you think once they heard him play and they saw how great he was that any of those kind of thoughts just left those people almost immediately, or is that wishful thinking?
PJ: I think certainly some of that is true. I think that Larry truly shows his soul when he makes music like any good musician and it's hard to deny that. However, sometimes it's still trumped by people's fear of the unknown. I know that Joe told me a story about how he Larry were in a jam, they're having a great time, and somebody said something to Larry during a break between songs that was really ugly even after playing music with him. And they decided it wasn't for them. They said, hey, we're just going to head out. They packed up and just walked away. And they felt unwelcomed. Well, come to find out, days later that people in that jam, after that gentleman said something mean, said something ugly, the jam kind of disintegrated because that left a bad taste in everybody's mouth. So I think that Larry won them over. It's hard not to.
CB: I was just going to say, how could you not let him win you over when you hear that music?
PJ: And he's also just a charming guy. There's a little bit of a language barrier between him and me. He speaks a little bit English. I speak a little bit of Spanish. Were able to get the idea across but the small talk is not easy.
PJ: What’s the future of this project look like?
Larry: Marvelous! I think that this is going to help the community to grow, to integrate. And even though we are working, this is our job, the goal is always still going to be inclusion.
PJ: We’re able to listen to some music together. And I think that if you can share some music with someone, if you can come together over music or food, it's hard not to understand someone even if they're polar opposite from you.
Larry: At the fruits of our project, Larry and Joe, is regardless of your nationality, this music can alter the society and bring about good.
PJ: And I think that's the message here. I think that's the takeaway from this experience. I'm thankful that I'm able to share common spaces and find common ground with people through our vast differences. And I think that sitting around the table and looking each other in the eye or sitting around a jam space and look at each other and hearing someone bear their soul, that's a really good way to find common ground. And for that, I'm thankful there are opportunities to do that.
CB: I'm thankful just hearing this music today. This is my first time hearing this and the minute I heard it, my ears just perked right up. It was like instantaneous I knew it was special.
Larry: And through the work we’re doing with this project, Larry and Joe, a lot more windows are going to start opening. Our slogan is inclusion. You can be black, or white, or red, whatever, you’re welcome, it’s all alright. When a black person draws blood, blood is red. And when a white person draws blood, it’s red. There’s no difference. The only thing we have different is skin pigment. The heart beats at the same rhythm. So if our heart itself beats at a certain rhythm, which is the fountain of life, that means we’re made out of music.