Appalatin: A Perfect Rhythm Falling Into Place


Nesting in Louisville since 2006, slowly taking its time to form and blossom, Appalatin is six working professionals who haven't quit their day jobs -- two native Kentuckians and four immigrant Kentuckians from Latin America, who do lot of professional-quality music in their spare time.

If one were to introduce Appalatin to the world in one longish sentence, it might be something like this: “Appalatin is sunny, high-spirited, fun music, technically a cross-pollination of Appalachian-Kentucky Hillbilly and various Latin American Sounds (primarily Andes & Coastal Central American) -- specifically Rumba, Andean, Central American Folk, American Folk, Cuban, Cha Cha, trova movement from the Sixtes and Seventies, Cumbia, and Bluegrass -- with some of their influences being Silvio Rodriquez of Cuba, Mercedes Sosa of Argentina, Victor Jara of Chile, Nineties Spanish pop band Jarabe de Palo and jam bands like the Allman Brothers.”

Meet this time from foreign shores not Paul, John, George, and Ringo, but rather Obanodo “Marlon” Solano, Steve Sizemore, Yani Vozos, (who has emerged as the group's unofficial/official spokesperson), Fernando Moya, Luis de Leon and the amicable Mario Cardenas, who speaks mostly in Spanish.

The first time I see them was at the Americana Festival this past summer -- and they caught my ear. Right away there was something extra-special and highly individual about Appalatin -- not just the fact that the music they performed is unusual (i.e., “Shady Grove” with Andean Pan Pipes and Central American Spanish guitar rhythms) -- but also the fact that they made it cohesive, natural and relaxed.

As people, they are very, very much like the music they perform. They have a notably warm, genial, and relaxed air about them, similar to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, that gives them the potential to be a real crowd-pleaser and a favorite.

Yani Vozos recaps their genesis this way: “In August 2006, Steve and Marlon jammed once, then I came in and we did a show at [the] Jazz Factory. A year later Fernando joined the band, a year later Mario started playing off and on, and a year after that Luis joined the band, and here we are.”

Steve and Yani both hail from small towns in Kentucky -- Hazard County, and Richmond plus Estill County, respectively. Marlon grew up on a farm in a tiny community, only in San Lorenzo, Nicaragua. Fernando, surprisingly the most urban of the bunch given his tribal heritage, hails from just outside of Quito. Mario hails from Loja -- the “Nashville or New Orleans of Ecuador” (his words), and Luis is from the State of Chiapas and lived in Guatemala for twelve years before coming here.

The music that emerges from this divergent mix is remarkable in the degree to which it both melds seamlessly together and preserves the essence of each of its ingredients.

Appalatin began with a long-running set of gigs at various of the locations of Heine Brothers Coffee that lasted from 2006 until Spring/Summer of this year, an affiliation which gave them excellent exposure to some of the most literarily and artistically acute people in the city and one which they might therefore resume sometime in the near future. They have also appeared earlier this year at the Tequila Factory and have an annual gig at the Kentucky Museum of Art & Craft - appropriately enough for the Day of the Dead celebration - in addition to other sporadic gigs around town over the past four years. On the out-of-town front so far, they have put in appearances in Lexington, Frankfort, and London, Kentucky (an event that got rained out, but they played for the organizers, anyway) and Corydon, Indiana. Basically they have taken their time since 2006 in bringing the particular and challenging synthesis of their eclectic sound together, forming it based on the common-denominator influences shared by each of the members.

Yani summarizes their seminal period, throughout which they were mentored by Louisville music-development legend John Gage, this way: “We started out playing cover tunes of mostly Latin folk music, and as musicians, we were comfortable playing together from the beginning. But Heine Bros. gave us the opportunity to develop the sound and get more comfortable playing with each other. For a long time, we rehearsed very little and only played together at Heine Bros., it was our rehearsal spot.. . . Everyone has unique but vaguely similar backgrounds, and the format that we use is very open, i.e., play a song and everyone adds their flavor and we see what happens. This was definitely cultivated at the Heine Bros., because we would just play and have fun and experiment with cover songs. So, when Marlon and myself began to introduce original songs it was easy to cultivate the original sound because of the open format and everyone being comfortable with each other.”

Getting There

This past summer, they felt they had enough original material together to record an album and put the finishing touches on it in the middle of December -- it should be released just a few weeks after this article hits the stands. As a comparison, Justin Bieber had been discovered, released an album, and garnered world-wide recognition in half the time Appalatin has spent in R&D -- but Beiber isn't as original and wouldn't appear to have that long shelf life that I project can be expected from Appalatin.

The great thing about Appalatin is that their sound hits you like early blues or Sainkho Namtchylak's surreal throat singing -- when you first hear it, what you (or at least it was true for me) get is this irrational but exciting feeling of “This is such a great sound, but is so new to me -- so clearly it is still so unknown -- I must be the only person who's heard it; otherwise everyone would be listening to it, and I would have heard it long ago.”

This experience of feeling like you're discovering something totally new to everyone is still possible for new listeners to Appalatin -- but, if I am right about their trajectory in the future, that should change.

Appalatin's own feeling of recent discovery has to do with acquiring that necessity to create something permanent that all artists feel when they realize that at last they are “there”; as Steve puts it, “When we recorded the album this summer, that was the first time we felt like, OK, we have to do this. You know, the rest of the time we're just like, all right, let's play, let's have fun.”

The good-feeling, upbeat music that has emerged as their signature has been the result of a cross-cultural experience for all the members; they didn't just play together, they visited each other's areas as a precursor to composing together, and immersed themselves independently in each other's folk music. Both Kentuckians, independently, spent time in Central and South America -- Yani in Nueva Morolica, Honduras from mid-2000 to late 2002, during a stint in the Peace Corps. Steve lived in Santiago, Chile for a year and a half, and in Buenos Aries, Argentina for almost a year, where he taught English as a second language. This is where they both really got into their mutual love of Latin American and Spanish music.

The situation was the reverse for the Hispanic members, who were immersed in their own local traditions as well as in Latin American commercial pop, and who got into Bluegrass and Appalachian Hillbilly music, again independently, upon coming into the U.S. The key difference is that the Latin Americans already had a little bit of a leg-up, since they didn't have to leave their respective countries to discover the commercial American stuff.

But here they are now, all together, with primarily much the same influences – Steve, a planner at U of L, who is drummer/percussionist-of-all-trades (congas, bongos, cajons, etc.); Marlon, who is self-employed with his homemade jewelry business Naturaleza al Descubierto (plus being an archaeologist), on guitar & vocals; Fernando, on Bamboo Flutes and Chagrango, makes Andean flutes and sells them along with native crafts at art fairs and festivals around the region; Luis, a journalist and photographer for Al Dia En America, the local Spanish-language paper, also submits to papers in Mexico and Guatemala, and is the one on harmonica and Maracas (who, according to Fernando, brings the “blues-y flavor”); Mario, a retired industrial engineer, dubbed by the other members 'the Godfather,' a.k.a. the group's oldest member, providing bass and background vocals; and spokesperson Yani, a U of L Graduate Student Advisor, on vocal, guitar and mandolin, who, according to Fernando, accounts, with Steve, for the group’s “gringo flavor.'”

Appalatin: The Music You Can’t Ignore


There is an old cough medication somewhere out there with the slogan, “Tastes Awful But It Works.” On the surface, one might think that combining Applachian with a variety of Latin American styles might be more like a case of “sounds awful but it doesn't work,” or even possibly ending up like a Hasil Adkins song – “sounds awful but it somehow manages to work.” But the ears don't lie -- and, if you think about it, of course, the folk traditions in both the Americas, rooted in European, African, and Native American customs and styles, would have to blend together smoothly and harmoniously -- a perfect fit.

There could be some influences from their past that have affected their music that the members themselves are unaware of – I asked them this and they responded with a joke at their own expense, that possibly music they didn't necessarily like, but that happened to be in the background of their individual childhoods, would account for what I was hearing.

However, that isn't what I meant at all. Personally, the unreported influences I think I might be hearing are not unlikable in any way -- some Caribbean rhythms, which might have sneaked in undetected via the Nicaraguan and Honduran streams. Possibly for Marlon, it might be Nicaraguan ranchera and Latin American music; for Steve it might be top 40; for Yani it could be the Greek roots music of his heritage; or for Fernando it might be the heavy metal to which he says he used to pick up girls as a teenager.

Appalatin still has to make the mark they deserve in Louisville, let alone in the rest of the world, but from this point on they should “get known” very quickly, especially with their new CD coming out. They make music one really cannot ignore, and their own peculiarly inviting and stage-warming presence should clinch it, especially among those who tend toward the traditional in music. So, while they have enjoyed the success of having played for the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, I would have to say I cannot imagine any panties ever being thrown onstage at an Appalatin concert. On the other hand, they do report having once played for dogs. Yes, dogs: “We played a dog party, yes its true, a party in a gymnasium where dogs were running around with their owners, they all seemed to enjoy it.” And as for panty paucity and party-pooper factor, I wouldn’t want to go so far as to give the wrong impression: “Last Cinco de Mayo at the Tequila Factory [we had] people dancing on table at the end of the night.” So, OK, not panties -- but close enough.

In what they refer to as “a narrow brush with fame,” Appalatin was invited to play (though in the end Yani was the only one who could attend) an EPA rally on the expansion of a coal- fired energy plant in Southwest Jefferson County, in company with Jim James and Daniel Martin Moore.

Appalatin's playlist so far consists of originals, traditional American Folk -- both North and South American, that is -- and covers of some Latin American commercial music. They've also done renditions of Andean music, such as covers (“Alturas” among them) of Inti-Illimani songs. Here's their take on some of their own favorites so far: “I [Yani] think that all of the songs are special and have the power to speak to and move people both here and abroad. For me though, I am a fan of "Canta mi Gente," "Spread the Love Around," "Luna Llena," "Pine Mountain Top," and "Shady Grove.. . . Oh, and "Carro Loco," too, is a foot stompin', knee slappin' jam that will get even the most timid in the mood to move. Definitely has potential to catch on.”

Regarding the future the group members envision for themselves, Yani has this to say: “I think that we will continue to grow as musicians and as a band, always paying tribute to past folk traditions from Latin America and here in Kentucky. I also see us experimenting with different styles and perhaps other instruments as well. Flamenco is something that we are all very fond of as well as Brazilian music as well as more rock and blues. We have talked about incorporating the violin/fiddle, saxophone (Luis plays this) and electric lead guitar (Yani plays this) and perhaps a drum kit.”

For the future, a quote from Steve Sizemore on Appalatin's Facebook page -- “2011 should be a big year for Appalatin!”

I think that is a safe prophecy to make.

This piece originally appeared at Louisville Music News.

Photo by Paul Moffett, Louisville Music News.

Appalachia-based Alexander Clark Campbell has done critical pieces on film, C&W music, local and regional travel, and food. He currently covers the worldbeat music scene for Louisville Music News.