Date: Thursday, Jul 8th, 2010
Time: 7:30 pm
Location: Stuart’s Opera House
Parked next door to a sandwich truck sits a hand-built, mule drawn “Gypsy wagon,” like an apparition from a bygone era, in the driveway of a contemporary hillside home in Hollywood, California.
Belonging to Fishtank Ensemble, it embodies the wild and wooly journeys of the band’s eclectic and eccentric members—vocalist Ursula Knudson, violinist Fabrice Martinez, guitarist Doug “Douje” Smolens, and bassist Djordje Stijepovic—who share a vibrant passion for unbridled creativity and music with Roma roots. The quartet with a quirky name blazes new musical trails on their new album, Woman In Sin due out May 11, 2010 (fishtankensemble.com).
“We all met at a performance space called the Fishtank,” explains Knudson, who often finds herself explaining the group’s unusual moniker. “It had lots of windows, so passers-by could peer in on the activities inside like a fish bowl.” The budding ensemble then spent the weekend learning an entire repertoire of Romanian folk music. They quickly got a local gig, when someone asked the name of the band. Caught off guard, Knudson recalls, “I just blurted Fishtank. It doesn’t fit, and I actually like that.”
Their gallop across traditional and original sonic landscapes began in Europe, with serendipitous inspirations, irresistible urges, and love at first sight. It stretches from the echoing caves of Granada to the bombing of Serbia, from rollicking Venice to brooding Transylvania. “We were all guided by unseen forces and random acts of fate,” Knudson reflects.
As a teenager and promising musician, Martinez hitchhiked to Istanbul, collecting a treasure trove of instruments along the way. As jeeps with armed men patrolled the city, Martinez played illegally on the streets to collect enough money to fly back with all his instruments. “One day out of the blue I heard this music near a theatre,” recalls Martinez. “It was just one old guy playing violin and singing in an alley. Nothing more, and I loved it!” Inspired, Martinez returned home to Paris and immediately sold all his instruments, leaving him only with a violin that had been in his family for years. “I wasn’t interested in other music anymore, just the violin,” he says. “I resurrected this long-neglected family heirloom.” His fiddle led him to learn from some of the finest Roma players in Europe.
Smolens also found himself pursuing a passion he couldn’t deny and tracing a Roma route of his own, thanks to some flamenco recordings he just couldn’t get out of his head. He had grown up in the L.A. rock scene, playing drums and hanging out with Billy Idol and Slash of Guns ‘n’ Roses, and had no intention of picking up a new instrument. “I tried to resist for years,” Smolens laughs, “but in the end, I had to learn to play flamenco guitar. It grabbed a hold of my heart.” This unexpected calling led Smolens to the heartland of flamenco—learning from Gitano flamenco masters in the caves of Granada, Spain—and inescapably shaped his musical future.
Passion struck opera-trained American Ursula Knudson as she stood in a mass of masqueraded partiers at Venice’s notoriously decadent carnival one year. “Everyone was just staring at each other. After becoming bored with this scene, I went to a casino where Vinicio Capossela was playing,” recalls Knudson. From across the crowded room, as if by fate, her eyes met with those of a stranger: Martinez, who was playing with Capossela at the time. “He came up to me and we began talking about music,” she continues. Despite having respective fiancés, a year and a half later the two were married. Guided by hidden forces, they soon began their romantic wagon wanderings through Transylvania, and eventually wound up in Oakland, where they teamed up with Smolens.
These traveling troubadours soon picked up exceptional Serbian bassist Djordje Stijepovic, who literally wrote the book on upright slap bass and has lent his trademark slapping style to some of the best rockabilly, Gypsy, bluegrass, and blues acts around the world. Growing up in Serbia, he got his hands on recordings by Elvis and the Stray Cats despite bombs, sanctions, and political upheaval. His masterful bass playing won him gigs with local Romany stars in smoky bars and coffeehouses from the tender age of 13, where the unique pulse and flash of the Balkans became second nature to the omnivorous musician. After moving to US he fulfilled his rock’n’roll dreams playing in a band with Lemmy from Motorhead and Slim Jim Phantom from the Stray Cats.
All these diverse roads led to California, where Fishtank Ensemble became an egalitarian society of like-minded musical overflowing with talent that lend to its rich and varied sound. As this wandering caravan forges new musical trails, each member contributes their own aesthetics and experiences to the collaborative creative process. “I like to start songs,” Smolens notes, “but I really love when the band helps finish them. We all end up shaping them and creating something unexpected.”
Woman in Sin teams with a polyglot array of personally-felt folk influences channeled into vivid original songs like the sexy title track, written by Smolens with extensive input from the group to showcase Knudson’s striking looks and torch-singing persona. Providing a solidly swingin’ foundation for the band, Stijepovic’s bass is virtuosic, upbeat, and sensual by turns, especially in a sultry duet with Knudson, the jazz standard “Fever.”
On “Cou Cou,” Smolens and Knudson mix French and English in a playful tease of original lyrics as Knudson’s girlish voice gracefully drifts between the guitar and violin, with a wink to the Hot Club of France. Reveling in the sounds of Django Reinhardt while adding rock ’n‘ flare, Smolens’ flamenco-tinged gypsy jazz guitar style shimmers.
Echoing the memories of Martinez’ days as a circus performer, a musical saw (played by Knudson) warbles a high-pitched haunting refrain on the lilting waltz “Espanolette.” “The saw is my thing,” says Knudson with a smile. “It works because I am a singer, and it involves the same bodily intuition. People always tell me that they can’t tell the difference between the saw and my voice.”
Stijepovic keeps the party going with an original take on an irresistible Balkan dance form with “Djordje’s Rachenitza”. “It’s a big thing in Bulgaria and Serbia,” Stijepovic explains,” but the 7/8 groove also gets people dancing anywhere. So I just had to write my own.”
Inspired by a Kurdish melody, “Nadim” is a blisteringly fast and darkly entrancing jaunt that features percussive bass slapping, virtuosic violin solos, and technically skilled guitar work. The title of the song pays homage to a melody by Martinez’ favorite violinist, Nadim Nalbantoglu. “It was incredibly hard to figure out,” Knudson explains, “but Fabrice loves a challenge. We all worked from the basic melody and arranged something very Fishtank Ensemble sounding.”
Showing the band’s versatility and emotional range, “O Dewel,” is a seductively slow-waltzing, musical prayer. Featuring lyrics in Romanes, a West European dialect of the Roma language, this intensely pensive piece produced a powerful spiritual experience in the studio. “It was a magical moment,” remembers Knudson. “On the first take, there was this point where the music swelled and we all felt it. It’s just that kind of a song.” Shifting gears, “Opa Opa” invites the listener to a raucous celebration by evoking images of dancing Gypsies on tabletops. Knudson notes that, “It’s just a dirty party song from Serbia that is like a volcano of sound.”
With a new emphasis on original material and old-school skills, Fishtank Ensemble has matured into their distinctly odd yet remarkably apt name, performing a self-aware selection of twisting timbres and tempos that capture an ineffable joy. “We want to produce music that people have never heard before, taking audiences to new places, so they can experience a range of emotions that we transmit through song,” muses Knudson. “That is the best thing we can offer: our heart.”
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