Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie — better known as the band Bayou Seco — once played “La Marcha,” the traditional New Mexico wedding dance, at a wedding in China. They have also played the song at gigs in France and the United Kingdom, where musicians who play traditional music are often eager to add the tune, along with other songs from New Mexico, to their repertoire. The couple have made it their mission to preserve New Mexico’s traditional music — not just by recording it, but by learning it, teaching it, and supporting and promoting the oldtimers who continue to play the waltzes, corridos, rancheras, polkas, and huapangos they heard as children. Among the many local legends with whom Bayou Seco has played, and who are among their close friends, are Antonia Apodaca, Alfredo Vigil, and Cleofes Ortiz, all fixtures of the norteño music scene.
Keppeler plays fiddle, guitar, accordion, banjo, and harmonica, and is also a violin maker. McLerie plays the fiddle and guitar. (She has given fiddle lessons to children for 30 years, focusing on an eclectic array of fiddle styles and musical sources.) They both sing. McLerie lived in Paris in the 1960s and played music with her then-partner, Sandy Darlington. Keppeler served in Vietnam and got involved in the anti-war movement before heading to Germany, where he earned enough playing in a string band to spend 1977 hitchhiking around the United States, picking up new fiddle skills and making friends. He met McLerie in Louisiana in 1978, and the two almost immediately began playing music together. They came to New Mexico in 1980 for McLerie’s health — she has asthma — and lived in Albuquerque until 1996, when they moved to Silver City.
Bayou Seco performs at festivals, schools, farmers markets, museums, weddings, and other venues. The musicians have combined their love for the Cajun music they played in Louisiana with traditional Southwestern music, a hybrid they call “chilegumbo.” Their stage presence is open and joyful. Buskers at heart, they perform every song as if their dinner that night depends on inspiring enough passersby to toss cash into their instrument cases. They bring the same enthusiasm to “catching” songs, as the practice of learning and preserving traditional music is often called, in their work in rural New Mexico as well as their current projects at the Tohono O’Odham Nation in southwestern Arizona. Bayou Seco travels there regularly to perform dance and wedding music, which the duo learned from the people of the Gu Achi district of the reservation.
“Simply put, nobody else in the history of our great state has done so much for the music and gotten so little personal gain,” said Rus Bradburd of New Mexico State University. “In a world overrun with smart phones, iPads, iTunes, and technology gone wild, Keppeler and McLerie have pushed in the other direction. To them, the oldest magic is the best kind — the music that gets you dancing, the love of tradition, the respect for roots and older people.” — Jennifer Levin