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Striking a Chord

What do you get when you cross a Frenchman, a Mexican restaurant and a bunch of banjo players?



The few uneaten tamales are warming over on the buffet line as Jacques Menache pulls down the banjo hanging above a neon Tecate beer sign. For the most part, the host band has scattered to outlying booths. The cloggers are tired and thirsty; their sweaty foreheads shine in the bar lights. But the fiddler and banjo player remain waiting beneath the green, white and red Mexican flag, and soon the whole group is seated together, three banjos and three fiddles, on the dance floor beneath a disco ball that spins only on salsa night.

Every Thursday at 8 p.m. it's Old Time Night at El Chilango, the Latin American Cultural Center in Carrboro that Menache opened a year ago. A rare, more traditional form of string music, old time (called "old timey" by some) originated in Appalachia and relies on the hypnotic repetition of a single, incessant theme. "It's like being a Hari Krishna but with a more interesting melody," says Dwight Rogers, whose wife Gail Gillespie arranges the host band each week and plays guitar. Unlike bluegrass pickers, Rogers frails his banjo with his bare hand, a method derived from African-American banjoists that sounds like he's plucking corn silk.

There are also differences in picking patterns, tuning styles and all kinds of technical jargon, but fiddler John Newlin probably distinguishes the two genres best: "Old time's just less hyper." That's hard to believe watching Newlin sawing away at the fiddle nestled against his ribs, but old time does favor communal participation over individual virtuosity. "It's a very social thing, rather than just us being on stage performing music for people," says Rob VanVeld, who plays with Newlin in the Landfill Ramblers. Instead of taking breaks separately, all the instruments move together with the dancers and listeners to create an ephemeral, hair-raising energy.

This kind of community spirit is something that Menache has worked to cultivate in everything he's done. Born in Paris, he moved with his family when he was 8 to Mexico City, where he began studying as an apprentice to the great muralists Orosco, Rivera and Siqueros at the San Carlos Academy of the Arts. In 1969 he was forced to flee the country when the Mexican government began increasing pressure to quash an intellectual revolution championed by Menache and his fellow students. "During a student demonstration there, the government came down with helicopters and started shooting down on us," Menache says. "I saw several of my friends die and many thrown in jail."

He found refuge with his then-girlfriend Amy Abernathy, an exchange student at the academy and daughter of Chapel Hill intellectual benefactors Ab and Mina Abernathy. In 1974, having worked as an art instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill, Menache established his own institution in the Art School, later renamed the Carrboro ArtsCenter. There, in a loft above what is now the Armadillo Grill, he practiced the banjo and hosted jam sessions at which old-time legends Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham taught their music to local musicians and grad students, who eventually organized their own bands, including the Hollow Rock String Band, the Fuzzy Mountain Boys and the Red Clay Ramblers.

In the mid-'90s, after leaving the ArtsCenter to become an electrical contractor, Menache reunited with the people and culture he had left behind in Mexico. Working with many of the Mexican immigrants who were then just arriving as part of a construction boom in the Triangle, he felt that this burgeoning community needed a meeting place. So he and his wife, Lisa Domby, founded El Chilango, where they not only serve authentic Mexican cuisine but also host salsa dancing, Spanish and English lessons and art exhibits.

Since then, Menache has continued to preserve the traditions he adores, even through what seems the most illogical cultural combinations. During work and social events he exposes his Hispanic friends to a strangely familiar music. "Ranulfo Franco, one of my coworkers, heard some old-timey music that I was playing on the stereo," Menache says. "He's a dancer and he got excited about the music and wanted me to do something with it at the restaurant." Franco's request resulted in Old Time Night.

In the booth behind me, a candle image of La Virgen flickers against the faces of some diners who are speaking French, as university professors, carpenters, construction workers and legal advisers congregate at a long table amid handmade Zapatista banners to share their enthusiasm for this music. "This is very similar to the music of Mexico in the violin and guitar," Jesus Carrasco, a musician and immigrant from Guadalajara, tells me as he restocks the chicken enchilada tray.

"Traditional fiddling is an element of every culture," Linda Higginbotham says. She has come tonight to play with Gillespie, Rogers and her husband, Brad Leftwich, who I'm told is one of the best old-time fiddlers in the country. Even after they pull their instruments out of their cases, though, the folding chairs and microphone stands on stage are still doubled over and stacked against the wall, and four wooden chairs are squared up on the dance floor.

"El Chilango is different from most old-time sessions in that the music is miked," John Newlin told me earlier today over lunch. The pure traditionalists who play this music don't like to be wired. "It presents problems with the sound," Newlin went on.

"If not many more people come, we might just set up in the middle of the floor," Rogers says, his teeth crunching on ice water as he washes his dinner down, "like we usually do on Thursday nights in our living room."

"I'd rather hear it softly without that sound system anyway," Lex Larson comments over his shoulder. A lanky man with a lingering New England accent, Larson likes to play his fretless banjo with a rubber band wrapped around the neck to mute the open strings. "It's just something I like to do," he says later during the jam session. "It's probably illegal."

The quartet opens with "Candy Girl," a fiddle tune from Tennessee, which carries on until Leftwich's fiddle abruptly ends it singing "shave and a haircut." Then, banjo hanging from his neck, Rogers wrenches around in his chair and twists his head back toward the listeners. "Can you all hear it OK?" he calls out. "If not, move up!" EndBlock

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