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Reclaimed and Reinvented

Fishtank Ensemble turns the gypsy music stereotype on its head

When you hear sultry vocalist Ursula Knudson wail on “Woman in Sin,” it’s hard not to imagine a mythic Gypsy woman covered in jewels and scarves, and surrounded by accordion players.  

Though historically tainted with negative connotations, “Gypsy” is the popular term that refers to the Roma people. Their deep ethnic history is a 1500-year story of multiple movements between diverse regions and cultural acclimation and preservation, which has fueled the mystique and stereotype of the free-spirited Gypsy.

But Knudson and her trio of musicians—spontaneously named Fishtank Ensemble—aren’t waking up the streets of Turkey, Spain, or Serbia. They’re based in Los Angeles, Calif., where they bring the world music scene to rowdy club audiences. Knudson sees it as the “natural evolution of that music across the water, all the way over here.”

The Gypsy rock stars first came together in 2004 in a warehouse in Oakland, with no intention of becoming a band. It was there that Knudson, Fabrice Martinez (violin), Douglas Smolens (guitar), and Djordje Stijepovic (bass)—each with his/her own epic tales of musical wanderlust—combined their wealth of Balkan, Gypsy-jazz knowledge and watched it evolve into an exciting new brand of American-Gypsy that plays by its own rules.
Soon after their serendipitous jam session, the group played an impromptu show in Santa Cruz. After receiving an enthusiastic response, Fishtank Ensemble kept at it, and spent the next few years “learning how to be a band, figuring out how to tour and play,” says Knudson.

Though classically trained and technically impressive, today the band concerns itself with keeping energy and excitement levels up, rather than focusing on perfection.
“Fabrice was telling me that in Romania under one rule they had these cultural police,” Knudson says with a laugh. “And if musicians didn’t adhere to the absolute traditional way of playing, it was trouble for them, so people had really high standards of playing perfectly.”

Instead, Fishtank Ensemble embraces the (sometimes messy) chaos in favor of fun. “Shredding,” Knudson interrupts. “Shredding on the bass, violin, guitar.”

The band’s eventual relocation to Los Angeles from the already-cultivated world music scene in the Bay Area, was strategically satisfying to Knudson. “We were trying to get with the less obvious choice,” Knudson explains. “For me, it’s really important rather than go to a place where there’s already a really strong scene, to try and start elsewhere. I think we had a really big part in helping grow this music scene here and I’m really proud of that.”
The ensemble works hard to maintain its influence on the scene with a vibrant live show that has grown to include Knudson’s peculiar musical saw talent (an instrument that she says adds unparalleled texture) and Stijepovic’s renowned slap bass technique. Each member is also constantly looking for new material to keep their line-up fresh.

In the midst of creating a new album to follow their acclaimed Woman in Sin, Knudson has the search on her mind. “We really look for the stuff that nobody ever hears,” she explains. “The last album we were just like, ‘sure, lets do these Serbian, mega super traditional hits,’ but now we want something unusual.” The result of that pursuit has been “going further east” as well as infusing ’20s and ’30s American jazz.
“It’s a fine line, between tradition and keeping it fresh,” says Knudson, “but our philosophy’s ultimately about seeing everyone excited to come back.”


Fishtank Ensemble plays at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy 9, Felton. Tickets are $12/adv, $15/door. For more info, call 603-2294.

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Heart Me Up

In defense of Valentine’s Day

 

“be(ing) of love (a little) more careful”—e.e. cummings

Wednesday (Feb. 10) is Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins. Friday (Feb. 12) is Lincoln’s 207th birthday. Sunday is Valentine’s Day. On Ash Wednesday, with foreheads marked with a cross of ashes, we hear the words, “From dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.” Reminding us that our bodies, made of matter, will remain here on Earth when we are called back. It is our Soul that will take us home again. Lent offers us 40 days and nights of purification in preparation for the Resurrection (Easter) festival (an initiation) and for the Three Spring Festivals (at the time of the full moon)—Aries, Taurus, Gemini. The New Group of World Servers have been preparing since Winter Solstice. The number 40 is significant. The Christ (Pisces World Teacher) was in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights prior to His three-year ministry. The purpose of this desert exile was to prepare his Archangel (light) body to withstand the pressures of the Earth plane (form and matter). We, too, in our intentional purifications and prayers during the 40 days of Lent, prepare ourselves (physical body, emotions, lower mind) to receive and be able to withstand the irradiation of will, love/wisdom and light streaming into the Earth at spring equinox, Easter, and the Three Spiritual Festivals. What is Lent? The Anglo-Saxon word, lencten, comes from an ancient spring festival, agricultural rites marking the transition between winter and summer. The seasons reflect changes in nature (physical world) and humanity responds with social festivals of gratitude and of renewal. There is a purification process, prayerfulness in nature and in humanity in preparation for a great flow of spiritual energies during springtime. Valentine’s Day: Aquarius Sun, Taurus moon. Let us offer gifts of comfort, ease, harmony, beauty and satisfaction. Things chocolate and golden. Venus and Taurus things.

 

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