Lofty quotes about music litter the philosophical record. Confucius and Plato both weighed in, although their respective aphorisms—”Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without” and “Music is a moral law”—are impossible to definitively attribute.

Easier to source is Arthur Schopenhauer’s famous 19th-century claim that “music is the language of feeling and of passion.” But cantankerous English art critic John Berger might have said it best in 2015: “A song narrates a past experience. While it is being sung it fills the present … while it hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward, farther and farther.”

That spirit of propulsive, progressive momentum is alive in the work of Larry & Joe. Born in Winston-Salem and now based in Durham, Joe Troop learned bluegrass and old-time music as a teenager before spending a decade living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and leading Grammy-nominated fusion group Che Apalache. Larry Bellorín, meanwhile, grew up 2,100 miles south in Punta de Mata, Monagas, Venezuela, where he was a legend of música llanera, traditional Venezuelan folk punctuated by arpa (harp), cuatro (small classical guitar), and maracas (hand percussion).

Forced into exile six years ago by the Venezuelan migration crisis, Bellorín applied for political asylum and landed in Raleigh, where he started working construction while rebuilding his musical life.

The unlikely duo connected at the beginning of 2022 with help from Sophia Enriquez, an assistant professor at Duke University specializing in the intersection of Latinx and Appalachian music, migration, and belonging.

Bellorín had accompanied Enriquez during a gig at the North Carolina Museum of Art, while Troop was gearing up for a month-long residency at Durham Fruit.

“Larry came to the first gig and joined in on bass,” Troop tells INDY Week at the Raleigh Times, where the duo performed one Tuesday night in June. “Then I sent him some scratch recordings to learn before the next show. When he took out his harp, he got a standing ovation.” Bellorín, who responds in Spanish (effortlessly translated by the bilingual Troop), smiles and adds, “Right away, there was something really unique between us—a different kind of connection.”

That connection is built on the surprising common ground that exists between Bellorín’s música llanera tradition and Troop’s bluegrass heritage.

“They’re both the folkloric representations of our countries,” Bellorín says. “They’re both string band music, and they’re both working-class music. Having that commonality but from different vantage points is what gives us our own unique identity.”

Troop remembers meeting llanera musicians busking in the Buenos Aires subway around 2016 when a mass exodus of artists and intellectuals left Venezuela.

“They were phenomenal,” he says. “Like, ‘holy crap’ good. But I never got a chance to work with a Venezuelan musician full-time until Larry. It’s the chance of a lifetime. We’ve both been exposed to each other’s folk traditions, but now we’re really trying to find a way to fuse them together.”

At first glance, that comes from carving out a rhythmic role for the banjo on música llanera standards like “Uno No Tiene la Culpa”—and spicing up old-time country favorites like “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” with maracas. The duo’s interpretation of “Caballo Viejo,” a Venezuelan classic originally recorded by Simón Díaz, even earned Troop an endearing new nickname: El Gringo Llanera.

“That’s the first time música llanera has been made with a banjo,” Bellorín emphasizes, “with a high level of musicianship and execution. But it’s not about difficulty. The beautiful thing is the love with which Joe performed it.” Troop says the cross-cultural osmosis goes both ways, citing Bellorín’s crowd-pleasing performances on arpa and cuatro at last month’s Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention. “It brought people to tears,” Troop says. “Music touches people’s hearts in a way that’s ineffable. You don’t necessarily know what it is that moves people to cry. But it’s symbolic, and humans live and die off symbolism and beauty. It’s the only thing that makes life worth living.”

This concept is baked into the Spanish word inquietude, Bellorín says. He and Troop spend several jocular minutes cycling through possible English translations—Ancientness? Longing? Concern? Reflection?—before accepting the lack of any perfect analog. “That’s the bridge we’re building,” Bellorín says. “We’re structurally dismantling barriers to our music. Language isn’t a barrier, since we play a bilingual set. Race and color aren’t barriers; in the end, all blood is red. We’re promoting a message of unity between our two folk traditions.”

They’ll put that mixture on tape in August, when they plan to record their full-length debut with Durham guitar whiz and composer Charlie Hunter—most likely live to tape to capture the electrifying musical chemistry they’ve developed while gigging all over North Carolina. Whether that’s for bluegrass purists in Danbury, Hispanic families in Graham, white hippies in Carrboro, or multicultural youth in Durham, Larry & Joe’s mixture of old-world elegance, foot-stomping joy, and multi-instrumental prowess always wows the crowd.

Even more important, both men say, is democratizing that crowd.

“We don’t want to exclude anyone from our shows who can’t afford to come,” Troop says. “We want to create spaces that everyone can share.” Nearly all Larry & Joe live shows (including their upcoming one at Pour House in Raleigh on July 26) rely on a pay-what-you-can model. Surprisingly, they say it’s been a resounding success. Many concertgoers drift in the door based solely on the singular sound of the llanera-bluegrass blend, then drop $10 or $20 into the bucket on their way.

“We know we have to work within the confines of capitalism,” Troop says of the model. “But we’re trying to encourage a more egalitarian approach to the often exclusive economy of live music.”

Such themes of social justice have always permeated Troop’s work, from his Che Apalache days to his 2021 solo album, Borrowed Time. That critically acclaimed work showed solidarity with Mexican immigrants, progressive Black politicians, and queer communities thriving in rural places. “My song ‘Hermano Migrante’ resonated with Larry,” Troop says. “Our music has more than a political message. It has a human rights message that values sharing space and learning about each other’s cultures. We are part of a broader movement—what Cesar Chavez called La Causa and what today is known as Nuevo South. We’re one representation of that cultural phenomenon.”

Troop says the Triangle—home to nearly a quarter of North Carolina’s 1.2 million Latinx population—is the duo’s perfect home base. He and Bellorín have hosted bilingual harp-building workshops for local schoolchildren, and Hillsborough-based nonprofit Music Maker Foundation has provided the duo with extensive support (including a stand-up bass for Bellorín to play and a table saw for his harp luthiery).

“We’re developing a concept,” Bellorín says. “I want the harps that I build to be touched by painters, poets, and children. Their hands are a metaphor for the unity of our work as cultural community builders.”

Troop marvels at the fact that their work only began because he and Bellorín were both searching for new collaborators during the depths of the recent Omicron spike.

“This has been a really beautiful thing to come out of a lot of tragedy,” Troop says. “Our music’s helped us express ourselves and sublimate these experiences that have been hard on everyone.”

Momentarily overcome by the fiery emotion he normally saves for the stage, Troop looks at Bellorín and adds, “We are really lucky to have this man in North Carolina.” Bellorín smiles back, their unspoken intuition clearly sharpened after just a few months together as a duo. “Music is a universal language—the language of integration. And everyone speaks it. This could be the beginning of something big.” 

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