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Literature meets competition at the Silver City Poetry Slam.

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Palomas after the US border crackdown.

Voice of a Ranch Woman
The First Track in the Snow

Spilling the Beans
Confessions of a "coffee geek."

Diary of a Streetwalker
Finding fitness and peace, one step (literally) at a time.

Around the World with Desert Exposure
Reader photos from six continents.

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Warm-Up Wake-Up Call
Bayou Seco in Basque Country
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About the cover

D  e  s  e  r  t   E  x  p  o  s  u  r  e        January 2008


Peppers Without Borders

Berets and balconies, chile ristras and fast accordion
music in Basque country.

By Jeanie McLerie and Ken Keppeler

Editor's note: We're delighted to once again be able to share a "rolling postcard" from the popular Silver City "chilegumbo" musical duo, Bayou Seco. This issue, they write us from Basque country in Spain and France.

Sometimes we are amazed how far we can travel on the wings of a good old New Mexican polka. We arrived in Euskal Herria — Basque country — on a Thursday morning in early November, after 20 hours of flying and changing planes three times. A low-lying fog covered the ground, but a lot of mountains were visible above the clouds, and then we could see the sea shining in the early-morning sun. It looked quite magical and alluring, and when we saw the terminal in Bilbao, which was designed to evoke a dove of peace, we knew we were in for a special time. We had been invited by the fantastic accordionist, Joseba Tapia, to take part — two 15-minute sets — in a Diatonic Accordion Festival of duos.

Bayou Seco: Jeanie McLerie and Ken Keppeler
at the Rue des Basques in Bayonne.

Diatonic button boxes play a different note, depending on whether you push or pull. Accordion and tambourine is the traditional format for the local trikitixa (pronounced "trikitisha") music. So, along with us, there was an accordion duo from Belgium and Catalonia; a duo from the French Basque country who played accordion and fiddle, a bandoneon (Argentinean style of squeezebox) and electric guitar; a 20-year-old Italian powerhouse named Simone Bottasso, who didn't need a partner; as well as four local groups.

There was no time for jet lag because every moment of the weekend was heavily programmed. But fortunately for us, the nighttime hours were like our day, since we were eight hours ahead of New Mexico, so it wasn't too hard to stay up late — between 2 and 3:30 three nights in a row.

We caught a nap the first afternoon, and then it was off to the cider house for a evening of regional entertainment. First, everyone in our group went into a room full of vats of cider in various degrees of fermentation. The spigot was opened, and everyone lined up and made a pass with a wide-mouthed glass under the stream of cider, catching a couple inches of the delightful, not-very-alcoholic brew. There were 17 floor-to-ceiling vats. The old ones were made of wood, the newer ones of stainless steel. Everyone drank and then ceremoniously dumped the dregs on the floor before heading back to the table to eat the first course of reconstituted salt cod, cooked with eggs in an omelet fashion. We were not given plates, only sharp knives and cloth napkins, but the lovely small round loaves of bread on the table were cut into fourths, and we conveniently used them to catch the juices between the serving plate and our mouths. The second plate was a type of fresh white fish, grilled with green peppers. Delicious! Then came the "big meat," as our host Joseba Tapia called it — hunks of grilled beef on the bone, very rare and tender, and well salted. In fact, we never saw salt and pepper on the table while we were in Euskadi, because everything was well-seasoned before being served. It wouldn't be a good place for a low-salt diet, though. All the while, we made return visits to the vats of cider, trying different batches of various ages.

The finale was plates of Etorki, sheep cheese from the nearby Pyrenees, with big slabs of membrillo, which is like a hard jelly made of quince or apple. There were baskets of walnuts, which some folks cracked open with their bare hands! We were told not to cut the cheese, but to break off a piece before using the knife to trim off the rind.

After all this we went upstairs to the bar and had a rocking jam session of trikitixa music with four accordionists, and as many tambourine players. They all sang together in full harmony, and it was absolutely gorgeous. At this point we were happy with water, but the drink of choice seemed to be Coca Cola and red wine mixed together. I had never heard of that one, and frankly didn't want to taste it, either.

The music was beautiful. It is such a treat to be in a place where the traditional music is well loved and very popular, and happening all the time in the town squares, bars, at fiestas and so forth. There are a lot of bands, some with fairly young players. Even though the TV and radio blast out the usual Europop and American stuff, it seems this vibrant tradition will stay alive.

(Here is a link to a site with two young guys playing Basque music on the accordion and tambourine: www.youtube.com/watch?v=23pdHJnClrU&feature=related.)

The next day we were picked up by Joseba at the hotel at 11 a.m. and made the one-hour drive back to Bilbao from Lasarte near Donostia (St. Sebastien) where we were staying. After lunch came the sound check, getting to know all the musicians, trading CDs, and finally the concert at 8 p.m. It was great to hear all the different music. Our "Chile Verde, Chile Rojo" song went down very well in this land of peppers.

The next morning we left at noon and went into the beautiful port town of Donostia to the Kursaal, a 600-seat theater/convention hall. We put our instruments in our dressing rooms and left for lunch at a nearby cafe — with roasted peppers alongside the main dish, as usual. Then it was back to the theatre for sound checks and TV coordination, since it was all filmed. Each group was asked a question in the Basque language and had to answer in their language. Ken told everyone in Spanish why the accordion is so popular in the cultures of music we play: "It is because this is a music you play by ear and from the heart, and you can't learn it from written notes because it is almost impossible to write down."

There was a huge TV screen behind us on stage showing closeups of the musicians' hands and fingers. Luckily we couldn't see it while we played. But we all watched on the TV monitors from underneath the stage — especially fun when the performer was exuberantly tapping his foot.

Afterwards was another reception, more formal, with 80 people being served a very nice five-course, traditional meal. Entertainment followed, with some elderly men playing the older "triki" style with accordion, tambourine and gaita (a bagpipe without the bag.) Later on, the younger kids started playing and many people danced the fandango, the wild, very old dance of the region — both arms held up in the air, fingers snapping and feet moving very fast. We got to bed at 3:30 a.m. and were plenty tired.

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