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ROLLING POSTCARD, SUMMER 2007:

Sunflowers, Saunas and Stuttgart Barbecue

Silver City's "chilegumbo" musicians, Bayou Seco, write home from their performing tour of Europe.

By Jeanie McLerie and Ken Keppeler

 

Once again we have the privilege of traveling with music as our passports. Back in Droyes, France, a little village in the Champagne region (where we are honorary citizens), visiting old friends Philippe and Francine, I was dismayed this time by the relative lack of church bells. They chime only the morning Angelus at 7, 12 good whacks at noon, and seven again in the evening as well as two times on the half-hours between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The new mayor thinks most people don't like them, and so he doesn't see any reason to fix the malfunctioning hour-ringing bell. Coming through jet lag, propelled eight hours ahead of our normal day and night, I used to love to hear those bells as I woke in a fog somewhere between 7 and noon the first few days. I didn't have to open eyes and grope around for my watch. I could lie in an oblivious state — suspended between each ring, floating on the overtones, feeling the relief of another international flight behind me and the excitement of six weeks of travel, friends and mu
sic ahead of me.

Performing at the Altenstadt Fest in Germany (left to right):
Philippe Pierson, Jeanie McLerie, Ken Keppeler, Ingo Stahmleder.

The weather this time around has been very cool for late June/July — rainy and windy and not at all good for all the outdoor music events scheduled around La Fˆte de la Musique and other outdoor events. Last year at this time we were sweltering in the cloudless days wishing for a bit of rain. The whole world is topsy-turvy, and the norm is no longer normal.

France is in the beginnings of a new political reign. Many are unhappy with the results of the last election, as they were with the one before. There seems to be no questioning of the reliability of this election and its outcome, unlike the US, where many seem to have lost faith in the election process. Here there was a much higher percentage of voters than we ever get — more than 80 percent, I think. The French always vote on a Sunday, and there was a runoff between the top two candidates a couple of weeks later. The runoff was a new idea this election.

We have leased a Renault Kangoo once again, for the fourth year. We move right in, knowing just where to stow all the instruments, the suitcase of CDs, the picnic table cloth and plates, and the presents we have brought along for our hosts (in airplane-style rear overhead bins). We love this car — so practical and economical (diesel) to drive. Almost all the European car companies make a car like this, even Mercedes, and it is similar to a Honda Element in shape. We often wish we could take it home with us. Gas prices are not much different than the last few years — 1.05 to 1.14 for a liter of diesel at one of the cheaper stations. Regular gas has gone up to as much as 1.45, so we are happy to have a diesel, since we can go about 100 kilometers on five liters.

We played three dance/concerts the first weekend — at an art gallery near le Lac du Der; the next night at a Ferme Auberge, where just about everything is grown on site, including the ham; and at a mill during the annual celebration of moulins (mills) that takes place all around France. Many of the old mills, from as early as the 16th century, have been restored, and it is possible to buy flour ground on site. Having just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about the "localvore" (eating food from your region) movement, I realize how easy it is to do here in France.

This summer we have seen "brownies" on the menu several times. The French pronounce the word "brouvnie." The letter "W" doesn't have much of a place in their language. The brownies were served with crŠme anglaise (custard sauce). Another popular dessert is fruit crumble, pronounced "Crrrom-BULL," accenting the second syllable. After many years of making fun of English and American food, the French are suddenly finding the charm in these simple sweets. My favorite for this time of year, though, is very French — clafoutis. It is a cherry dish, baked with a sort of crˆpe batter covering the cherries. They usually don't pit the cherries, so one has to be careful in eating this one, but it is totally worth it.

The sunflowers are just beginning to open at the end of June. There might be a whole field of them in the not-quite-open, puckered lips/kissing phase, and then next day there are suddenly hundreds of yellow dots in the field, changing the monochromatic green to a sea of earthbound stars. An amazing sight. We will watch them during July open up to full perfect circles of sunshine that eventually become heavy headed, finally bowing down under the weight of the seeds, ready to be turned into the sunflower oil that is very popular here.

 

The second week of our tour took us to Germany for the bi-annual Altenstadtfest. Not a part of the festival, but very traditionally, Wednesday evening is typically spent at the sauna amongst friends. This time our German friend, Ingo, took us to a new one about half-hour south (going 160 km per hour) of Altenstadt, near Aschaffenburg, called Saunagarten in Mainachaff. This one had about eight different sauna houses, all built like log cabins out of half-meter-wide logs. Each sauna room had a different temperature, ranging from 75-100 degrees centigrade, and a different decor. One had a mountain of ozone-emitting crystals in the middle; another, a water sculpture of calcified twigs with water running down them, making a delightful water-music with a jig-like rhythm; in another, a lovely mosaic design disguises the gas heat source. An aromatherapy room has lavender, lemon and mint smells wafting about, and aimless new age music (pan pipes, djmbe drum and other unrelated instruments) filling, I should s
ay overtaking, the airwaves. There is even a sea-sauna built over the lake with glass inserts in the floor, and steps leading off into the lake for the possibility of a refreshing plunge. My favorite rinsing off place was a powerful waterfall you could just stand under. Wonderful!

It is easy to spend two to three hours there going from house to house and enjoying the gardens. Of course, there were whirlpool tubs, foot baths, ice cold pools, a steam room, hot tubs and a nice swimming pool. The cost was about 17_ a person for the basic fun. A campground next door looked to be full. But the saunas were never crowded. You could tell by the amount of flip-flops outside the door whether that room was full.

This was a typical intergenerational German sauna in that no one wore clothes, but walking down the paths from room to room, some donned robes or towels, and of course you must carry a towel to lie down on the wooden benches.

At the end of all the sweating comes resting in one of the relaxing rooms under a blanket for a half-hour or so, watching the trees sway in the evening breezes. Then we all went into the bistro for a beer and big soft pretzel.

Speeding back up the autobahn, feeling relaxed and refreshed, we reflected on life and friends, especially on our dear friend Fritz, who is in the hospital waiting for a bypass operation soon, instead of frolicking in the waters with us. Fortunately, he was well enough to come home for the festival, which was lots of fun, our eighth one. Besides the two of us, for the festival Bayou Seco consisted of our Philippe from Droyes on guitar, and Ingo on the bass.

 

The third week of our tour we went back to Paris to play a Cajun club called Blue Bayou. It is really funny to walk into this Louisiana environment, complete with a stuffed alligator, chile lights, hot sauces on the tables, and all kinds of Cajun festival posters on the wall.

Paris is a huge city, crowded and noisy, and as we loaded up all the sound gear late in the night after the gig, I saw a little graffiti scrawled on the wall that said, "Paris, Ville Superficielle" — well, that was someone's opinion. I'm glad I lived here in the early 1960s when it was not so enormous.

But I must say we were really relieved to head south the next day to lovely Vichy to practice with more old friends, Jean-Marie and Natalie, for the Country Roque Festival in Provence on the south side of the Luberon mountains. This festival was held in a little village called La Roque d'Antheron. The ride down along the Rh“ne was beautiful, especially as we got further south and started to see the patches of lavender, an intense purple/blue blanket of color in small areas between the glorious sunflowers and fields of ripening wheat, and up the rocky mountain sides. The traffic pattern was "accordeon," meaning slow to fast, in and out, it being the first Saturday of July, when many people were setting out on their annual vacation.

The festival was quite a scene, attracting some 2,000 people each day. There was a full American menu of grilled corn, ribs, chile con carne and yes, of course, brownies. Bayou Seco Nuevo gave the crowd a spicy hour of cross-cultural music, while at least 200 line dancers did their dancing right in front of the stage. There were chairs around three sides of the dance floor, and many tables of folks farther back, eating and drinking. The music was piped all through the town, so that even the people with stalls selling cowboy hats, boots and shirts could hear all the bands. One band had a singer who tried to imitate Janis Joplin and actually did a pretty good job of it.

The constant soundtrack of the cicadas — a sort of tzchi-tzchi-tzchi-tzchi pulse that happens from sunup till sundown — is everywhere you go, and becomes lodged in your brain even after you have left the area. Fortunately, it didn't rain while we were there, and the hot weather felt very good after almost three weeks of drizzling grayness and intense downpours.

 

The days pass by quickly, and we feel very much at home on the road, thanks to the huge musical family we are lucky to be a part of. If I feel a bit homesick, I travel to Silver City in my dreams, and remember our life there for a few hours.

The second week of July was a bit of a vacation with no concerts, visits with friends in central France and in Mulhouse and Strasbourg — cooking gumbo, and trying to find chiles to make something reminiscent of New Mexico.

The middle of the month brings the Desert Exposure deadline, then it will be back to work and the upcoming next gig, a "Bar-be-que" in Stuttgart at the Deutches-Americanischer Zentrum, and more visiting up in G”ttingen and, finally at the end of July, a town concert in Thoriginy-en-Marne in the eastern suburbs of Paris at the town of Lavoir. (The name, which means a laundry place, comes from the fact the women there used to wash their clothes all together by the side of the river, and of course at the same time, catch up on the gossip.) This is now where the summer concerts are held. There are probably many stories in the air, if we just stop to listen.

We feel fortunate to have such a large family of musicians to work with over here. In England we mostly work as a duo, but here on the continent, many of the events call for a band. Thanks to the past 16 years of traveling here, we have managed to get quite a few people trained in the oddities of chord changes and rhythms that make Bayou Seco's music different. I think Europeans recognize the musical roots of what we play, and are familiar with the instrumentation (accordions and fiddles). But our style of American music is a gumbo of ideas and sounds and cultures, and it is perhaps a reflection of the music of our ancestors, who sailed over the sea many years ago to find a new life and freedom. We cross that same water to return home in a matter of hours in an airplane, full of amazing adventures, renewed friendships and discoveries. This is what I love about traveling.

Until we see y'all again, cheers and let the good times roll. And remember, "Si la pluie te mouille, ce n'est que de l'eau." — if the rain gets you wet, it's only water.

 

Silver City musicians Jeanie McLerie and Ken Keppeler, aka Bayou Seco, hope to schedule a "Rolling Postcard Concert" upon their return home; watch for details. In the meantime, they will be in Santa Fe Aug. 24-26 playing at the 33rd Santa Fe Traditional Fiddle and Banjo Festival, at the High Desert Brewing Company in Las Cruces on Aug. 30, and at the Second Annual Harvest Festival in Mimbres on Oct. 13.


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