Passion Play

While growing up between the small South Carolina towns of North Augusta and Edgeville, the young lady always dreamed of traveling, experiencing other cultures — and she did. Now the music of Miriam Allen and the Pasionistas brings those experiences to light in a mixture of sultry Latin American folk and Southern country stylings that stir the heart and celebrate life from all corners of the world.

“I grew up in a very conservative, sheltered town, and I always felt like an outcast — kind of a dorky little girl that didn’t really fit in. I knew there was something else out there, and my entire childhood I had this burning desire to go to Latin America,” she says. Even country music was hard to find in Edgeville. “There was very little live music. My parents made me go to church, and I sang in the choir. I think without me knowing it that taught me to harmonize. I loved singing in the choir even if the melodies were goofy and immature. It was my only outlet.”

Miriam Allen

Miriam Allen

After graduating from college, Allen saved some money, bought a guitar and took off for South America. “I wanted to go by myself because I didn’t want to speak English,” she explains. “I wanted to be immersed in another world. So I went down there and found various jobs, teaching English, doing farmwork, making adobe houses — whoever I was with, whatever they needed, I would work to pay my way and get in with their lifestyle.”

Allen lived in Argentina and Colombia, and traveled to Cuba several times. “Within an hour of getting out of my taxi in Cuba I had found musicians, and it was like, ‘Hey, these are my friends.’ I started singing and playing with them, and they wanted to learn more about American music,” she recalls. “They thought pure good old South Carolina country music was the most exotic thing they had ever heard. I never even thought I had talent as a country singer. Then I realized, we’re so used to country music that we see it as boring or old school, but it really has a unique flavor in the realm of world music.

“If you travel around the world as a musician, you’re going to make friends the minute you get to any town,” she continues. “We’re all this one big network all over the world. It’s a free ticket to world culture and it’s just so easy to fall in with musicians in any part of the world whether you speak the language or not.”

Returning to South Carolina in the early 1990s, Allen moved to Charleston and performed for nearly ten years as a solo musician, creating her own mix of Latin, South American, and Southern Americana music. She also credits regular jams with the eclectic Charleston band Dunzip with contributing to her musical growth. “I get really bored if I have to play one genre,” she concedes. “I’ve tinkered around with being in one type of band, just being in a salsa band, or running a country band. I love to do all that stuff, and I like to change characters. So if I can be in a band or a solo situation where I can play all kinds of different stuff back to back, then I can just be more animated, and have more fun.”

In 2000 Allen decided to visit Asheville, and was invited to a party where she met members of the local bluegrass group The Sons of Ralph. “They asked me to sing with them, and we just had a riot. All of a sudden I was friends with all these people. The next day I heard John Hartford at the Grey Eagle, and the crowd sang along with him in such a beautiful way. I was blown away. I was like, ‘I think I need to move up here for a little while.'”

Settling into the Asheville scene, Allen added violin to her musical arsenal, and was soon finding the right musical pieces to put together her own band, The Pasionistas. She has recorded two albums since 2004, The Mountains of Mendoza and the recently released La Capitana, musical tales that ring from the Andes Mountains to the Blue Ridge. “It’s hard to find musicians that can play all these different genres. Basically I love soulful music and I don’t care what genre it is. The genre is so secondary to the soulfulness and the emotion of the music to me. I just want to play with really emotional people.”

Two indispensable members of The Pasionistas are accordionist August Hoerr and drummer Jeremy Young. “August and I sing well together, and play well together. He also loves different genres, so we do very well musically. And Jeremy can change genres in three minutes, no problem. Sometimes if we’re doing something nice and quiet, he’ll just stop…and then start playing again. He’s really intricate, but really tasteful. Like, ‘What can I do to make everybody else sound better?'”

Allen’s favorite singer these days is the popular Mexican-American vocalist Lila Downs, and like the husky voiced Downs, Allen performs in Spanish and English. “My Spanish is a conglomerate of dialects from all over Latin America…pure street Spanish. Bits and pieces of Cuba, Argentina, Mexico, it’s all mixed up in there, totally informal and incorrect,” she admits.

Allen has also learned new dances in every stop along the way, another passion. She has studied some salsa and flamenco for fun, but mostly just mimics what she’s seen. “I pick up dances really quick,” she smiles. “The music should tell your body what to do.”

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