Que viva cackalacky

The Unlikely Long History Of Latinos And Latin Music In North Carolina

Author: By David Garcia

A historical milestone in the history of North Carolina music occurred the week of August 24, 2019. Che Apalache’s second CD, Rearrange My Heart, debuted on Billboard’s Bluegrass Albums Chart at #3. Joe Troop, leader and fiddle player with Che Apalache, is from Winston-Salem, and his bandmates—Pau Barjau (banjo), Franco Martino (guitar), and Martin Bobrik (mandolin)—are from Argentina and Mexico. One of Troop’s earliest immersions in Latin music came in 2004 when he was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and performed violin in the Department of Music’s new Cuban music ensemble, Charanga Carolina. Indeed, he did not have to leave his home state in the early 2000s to encounter various regional styles of Latin American music, as the Latino population throughout the state had been exponentially increasing since the 1990s, totaling close to 1 million by 2010. 

In fact, Latin music’s presence in North Carolina history runs deep and wide. Currently, Triangle residents enjoy Cuban timba and classic salsa music by Orquesta K’cheand Orquesta GarDel, Brazilian popular dance music by Caique Vidal & Batuque, and Mexican banda music by Los Guanajuatenses. At the turn of the 20thcentury other bands flourished in Charlotte as well as in the Triangle as documented in the book The Sounds of Latinidad: Immigrants Making Music and Creating Culture in a Southern City(New York: New York University Press, 2015) by Samuel K. Byrd, and Viva Cackalacky!Latin Music in the New South, a CD compilation produced by Carolina undergraduate students in 2012. Perhaps the most widely known of that decade’s Latin musicians was Rey Norteñoled by Fred Huerta. Their regional radio hit, “Raleigh,” is a heartfelt farewell to the state’s capital city from a grateful immigrant who must return home to his family. 

When I first moved to Durham from Jersey City to join the music faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2003, I had no knowledge of the thriving Latin music scenes of Latin communities in the area. I would soon learn that Latin groups playing music from various regions had been doing so since the late 1980s and with musicians of both Latino and non-Latino backgrounds. One of the most popular of these bands was Ricardo Granillo’s Carnavalito, whose members included local jazz musicians Jim Crew and Rodney Marsh as well as Puerto Rican transplants, Nelson Delgado from New Jersey and Pako Santiago from Florida. Born in El Salvador, Granillo grew up in the Bay area, northern California and moved to Raleigh in 1987. Another important figure in salsa’s early history at the time was promoter Jim Spier, who helped organize regular salsa shows in Chapel Hill, Research Triangle Park, and Raleigh. In addition to featuring local salsa acts Sazon, Sarengue, and Carnavalito, Spier contracted Cayari, Salsa 90, Orquesta Sensacional, and Bio-Ritmo from Virginia and Charanson and Orquesta Novel from New York to perform for North Carolinian salsa dancers. 

By my second semester at UNC I collaborated with undergraduate music students—among them, Jordan Delphos, Stephen CoffmanEric HirshPeter Kimosh, and Leah Peroutka—to begin an ensemble, which we called Charanga Carolina. Although the ensemble attracted the participation of some of the most talented (and daring) students in the department, including Joe Troop and co-director of Orquesta GarDel, Andy Kleindienst, we needed a vocalist who could do what I could not teach, execute soneosor vocal improvisations in Spanish. I looked no further than Carnavalito to invite their vocalist and percussionist, Nelson Delgado to join Charanga Carolina as a member from the community. For the next twelve years, Charanga Carolina would perform on campus as well as in the community, joining other Latin music groups at local festivals like La Fiesta del Pueblo

Orquesta GarDel, "La Salsa Dura" at the Center for the Study of the American South

But can we trace the history of Latinos and our cultures in North Carolina further back in time, even before the late 1980s? ConsiderSebastián Francisco de Miranda, who was born in 1750 in Caracas, Viceroyalty of New Granada (modern-day Venezuela). In 1780, Miranda joined the infantry regiment of Aragón, which Carlos III of Spain assigned to an expedition of the Caribbean in Spain’s war against Britain. He became assistant to General Juan Manuel de Cagigal whose army participated in the battle of Panzacola (modern-day Pensacola, Florida). After that success, Cagigal made Miranda a colonel and then charged him with sailing to Jamaica to exchange prisoners with the British and to obtain information on the island’s defenses. At this point, his life would change indefinitely when Carlos III ordered investigations and, eventually, the arrest of Miranda for his alleged illicit trade of contraband in Jamaica. Miranda was arrested in Havana in August 1782 but soon was released by the Governor of Cuba and his former commander, Cagigal. Before his prison sentence (without trial) of ten year’s could be carried out, Miranda went into exile, seeking asylum in the United States.

Miranda spent June 1783 through August 1784 meeting Americans while traveling through the Carolinas all the way up to New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Writing in his diary (The Diary of Francisco de Miranda: Tour of the United States, 1783-1784, edited with Introduction and Notes by William Spence Robertson, New York: The Hispanic Society of America, 1928), Miranda described their religious beliefs and practices, their patriotic celebrations, the status of their agricultural production, their local economy and architecture, social class relations, and women’s places in society. His entries, rich in detail about everyday life in American towns and cities, include lists of “principal residents” and his impressions of their character. While in North Carolina, he visited Ocracoke, New Bern, and Beaufort. In addition to being a military officer, Miranda was a flute player. In one amusing entry in his diary, while in New Bern, Miranda relates the following: 

One of the days that I was here turned out to be a Sunday, and, finding myself at home unable to go outside for a walk because of the constant rain, I picked up the flute and started to play a piece of music for fun, when the man and misses of the house, surprised and scandalized, ran in search of Mr. Tucker so that he can intervene and stop me from playing the flute on a Sunday. Mr. Tucker immediately came to me and suggested I take a walk. I had to burst out laughing and of course leave the instrument behind. As a result, the entire family calmed down, and I had to make an apology for my forgetfulness.

Miranda’s diary lends a unique perspective of the first two years of the United States’ existence from the eyes of a caraqueño (Caracas-born exile). Indeed, his story anticipates the stories of many Latinos of recent history escaping governmental and judicial corruption or, like Fred Huerta, Caique Vidal, and Ricardo Granillo’s parents, searching for a better future for themselves and their loved ones back home. How many more Mirandas, both men and women, traversed the mountains, plains, and coasts of North Carolina from the 1800s through the early 1900s? And, how many of these early Latinos in the state were musicians or participated in music making and dancing with North Carolinians? As we reflect on our ongoing debates regarding immigration, people in states like North Carolina without ostensibly a long history of a Latin presence can hopefully find enriching directions forward by looking back at our common histories of struggle and perseverance. We only need to listen and dance to the music of Orquesta GarDel, Fred Huerta, Caique Vidal, and Che Apalache to make our commonalities an essential part of our daily lives as citizens of this great state. Que viva, Cackalacky! Que viva! 

About the Author

David Garcia is professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Music. Published in Journal of the Society for American Music, The Musical Quarterly,MUSICultures, and other academic journals, his research focuses on the music of the Americas with an emphasis on black music and Latin music of the United States. 

He teaches undergraduate courses in music of Latin America, world music, and jazz, and graduate seminars in ethnomusicology, music of the African diaspora, and popular music. He is also musical director of UNC’s Charanga Carolina which specializes in Cuban danzón and salsa music.The Society for Ethnomusicology awarded his book, Listening for Africa: Freedom, Modernity, and the Logic of Black Music’s African Origins (Duke University Press, 2017) the 2018 Bruno Nettl Prize for Outstanding Publication in the History of Ethnomusicology.

He is the author of numerous articles on Latin popular music and is currently editing a book on the history of Latin music, dance and theatre in the United States, 1776-1900. He is also a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship (2014-2015). 

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