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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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