Photo: Chris Charles
Larry Bellorín and Joe Troop, the cross-cultural collaborators who go by Larry & Joe, released a version of the Latin American Christmas song, "Mi Burrito Sabanero." Joe sat down with Saddle Mountain Post to discuss the duo's origin story, and why they tackled this Christmas classic.
SMP: The story of how you and Larry began collaborating is fascinating. Tell our readers about it.
Joe: Larry and I had parallel trajectories that intersected on Dec. 2, 2021. Before the pandemic, I’d spent a decade living in Buenos Aries, Argentina. I formed a band there, Che Apalache, that played bluegrass and Latin American folk styles. It was a concept project and we had a pretty good trajectory. We were a GRAMMY Award-nominated band. Four weeks into an eleven-week tour, the pandemic decimated our operation. It was pretty demoralizing. I went back to North Carolina for what I thought would be just a few months, but as it turned out I never went back to Argentina. I got very involved in grassroots organizing, particularly with disenfranchised communities, Native Americans, African Americans and migrants, notably Latin American asylum seekers.
Larry migrated to North Carolina eight years ago when the Venezuelan economy collapsed. His family petitioned for asylum based on political persecution because they were not allied with the Chavez government and their lives were in danger. Larry wound up coming to North Carolina with his family and hung up what had been an illustrious, 25-year career in music to lift cinderblocks for a retaining wall company. So, it was demoralizing for him. His intended life trajectory was no longer possible. His primary interest was learning every stringed instrument under the sun, but found himself working 12-14 hour days in construction. When he could, he’d play gigs as a salsa bassist, or any gig which was possible for him to take, which wasn’t a lot. There just isn’t a huge demand for Latin music in North Carolina yet, unfortunately.
In the fall of 2021, I was coming to do a residency in Durham, and I was in search of collaborators. A friend tipped me off that there was this Venezuelan asylum-seeking migrant working in construction in Raleigh that was also a musical genius. I saw videos of Larry and could not believe my eyes and my ears. I got his number, called him, and invited him to participate in my residency. Sparks flew, the musical kinship was immediate. We knew we had something right away. The crowd gave us a standing ovation the first time we played together. From there, we both just dove in, and by early September in 2022 we had cut an album, Nuevo South Train, produced by guitar-great Charlie Hunter. In January of 2023, we went full time, touring nationwide, playing almost 200 gigs. Larry left his construction job and is thankfully back to music full time.
SMP: You’ve played music your whole life, collaborated with countless people. Had you ever experienced an instant connection like you had with Larry?
Joe: I think we had dreamed each other up. We had been putting this concept in motion and longing for it, but the right collaborator had never shown up until we met each other. We’re both multi-instrumentalists, singers, bandleaders, ensemble leaders, and composers. So, we’re very similar but from completely different worlds. You always hope to find someone who checks a couple boxes, but we each checked so many boxes for each other. We realized we had potential, but we had to get it together. And getting it together meant opening up our musical hearts, figuring out each other’s folk traditions, studying and working our butts off. And that’s what we did.
SMP: How’s it been for Larry?
Joe: Larry never wanted to leave Venezuela. Like a lot of Americans who love their home region and never want to leave it, that’s how Larry felt about his country. He was part of the region, part of its fabric, a revered musician in it. And one of the great things that’s happened for him is to discover how fans engage with the musicians they follow. That’s kind of a cultural phenomenon in the United States. For all its shortcomings as a country, the music scene is a true blessing and admirable element of this society. Independent music is like a life force unto itself. The way the fans show up, investigate who the artists are, and buy their merch as a method of supporting them. It’s amazing how engaged people are with the musicians that mean something in their lives. I took Larry to a bunch of fiddler’s conventions and outdoor music festivals and his mind was blown. He was from a vibrant music scene, had it taken away from him, and has now found his community again in North America.
SMP: How did Mi Burrito Sabanero come together?
Joe: We couldn’t resist the opportunity of taking the most famous Latin American Christmas song and doing our own whimsical spin on it. We just felt like we could do something unique with it. I’m playing the banjo; it’s usually played on the cuatro. The lyrics, “I sing along with my little cuatro,” I changed to “banjito.” So, it’s kind of funny, I’m playing a banjo. There’s clearly bluegrass elements. I also play a twin fiddle part. Larry laid down a rhythmic cuatro and absolutely shredded the electric bass, which is another one of his great loves. We just stumbled upon the arrangement while we were in the studio. I wrote the string part, and it was a mashup because I had the idea of using the melody of Here Comes Santa Claus and superimposed it on the instrumental interludes. And we do some whimsical stuff as well because we’re just goofballs at heart.
SMP: What is ahead for you two?
Joe: We’re going back in the studio in January. We’re then touring nationwide. I hope people come out and experience our show live, because it combines healing music, storytelling and dance into a magic potion that can hopefully do more than just entertain. It will certainly do that, but we also think of what we’re doing as a spiritual endeavor and we hope to heal hearts and minds. Our collaboration is like destiny. People want to see a collaboration like ours emerge. Of course, we were primed and waiting for it. The world didn’t know they were waiting for it, but we did. And now here we are.