Gypsy band, Fishtank Ensemble, is returning to Farmington.
They will play at The Vault in Farmington at 7 p.m. Sept. 7 before heading to Off Broadway on Lemp in St. Louis for a performance there the following day.
The band performed at Bauhaus Kaffee in Farmington last July.
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 that came out last May.
“We all met at a performance space called the Fishtank,” said 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 said, “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 said.
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,” said 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 said. “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 said, “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,” said 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 said. 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 said, “but I really love when the band helps finish them. We all end up shaping them and creating something unexpected.”