The story of the band Fishtank Ensemble starts out as a love story, according to singer and multi-instrumentalist Ursula Knudson.
"I went to Venice for Carnival one year, and I met this violinist, Fabrice (Martinez), and he came to visit me in Oakland later that year, and just stayed."
Knudson, who spoke to the Weekly via phone from her San Francisco Bay Area home last week, is now married to Martinez, and they have a 3-year-old son.
Their partnership also gave birth to Fishtank Ensemble, a gloriously eclectic combo that mixes traditional gypsy (or Roma) music with flamenco, jazz, klezmer and pretty much whatever else strikes the collective fancy of the group.
It wasn't easy for the band at first, Knudson says.
"So here is Fabrice, a very active violinist in Italy, and he has played all over Europe, and now he is stuck in Oakland. He says to me, 'I have to play music; I have to meet some musicians,'" Knudson recalls.
In Europe, Martinez had lived and played with a gypsy caravan that toured throughout Romania, Slovenia, Hungary and Italy, and he wasn't willing to let that experience or the music go.
Knudson did some legwork, and Fishtank Ensemble began to gestate organically.
"I had a friend with this performance space in Oakland called the Fishtank, and we started playing with some of the people who hung out around there," she explains. "And the accordionist we were playing with at the time said he knew all these people down in Santa Cruz, so we spent the whole weekend holed up in this guy's house playing. And then we got a restaurant gig, but they want to know what our name is. ... So we quickly chose Fishtank Ensemble for the place we first started playing in."
The name stuck. "Now I actually like it," Knudson says. "It doesn't sound like a group that sticks to one category; it doesn't confine us to one kind of music."
Fishtank's sound has been dubbed "cross-pollinated gypsy music" by the LA Weekly. The band performs everything from French hot jazz to Serbian and Transylvanian gypsy music, as well as traditional folk from Hungary and Romania, evoking the spirit of 1930s Paris nightclubs and the itinerant gypsy camps of Eastern Europe.
The current Fishtank lineup features the dual-violin front line of Martinez and Knudson, who also plays musical saw, theremin and percussion. She also sings in Romanian, French, Japanese and sometimes even in her native language, English.
Martinez also plays the unique violintromba, one of a variety of violin-like stringed instruments that amplify their sound through a metal resonator and horns; the instrument was originally developed in Germany and is often played in Balkan music.
Rounding out the quartet are flamenco-style guitarist Douglas Smolens (aka El Douje), who also produced the last Fishtank album; and conservatory-trained double bassist Djordje Stijepovic, who has professionally played the music of the Sephardic Jews, Balkan gypsy music, classical, jazz, Cajun, blues and rockabilly.
Fishtank Ensemble—also sometimes referred to simply as Fishtank—has included a dozen different players during its five years of existence, including musicians who are members of or associated with culturally eclectic groups such as Estradasphere and Secret Chiefs 3.
Instrumentation has included brass instruments, an accordion, trap drums and banjolele. An early incarnation of the band also featured a shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese instrument, lending the proceedings on the group's debut album a definite Asian air.
The current lineup has been settled for a while now, Knudson says.
"We like it this way, just the four of us. We hear ourselves a lot a better. It helps us keep track of the arrangements and where we are in them more easily than when we had a lot of people onstage."
Fishtank Ensemble has released two proper albums: Super Raoul in 2005 and the 2007 CD Samurai Over Serbia. There may be a few copies still floating around of the group's limited-edition early release, Fishtank at the Fishtank. A live DVD, Fishtank Ensemble: Live at the Freight and Salvage, contains concert footage and interviews with band members.
The group is working on a new recording, but production seems to move at a turtle's pace, Knudson says. "It's hard to stay focused. We are actually at the make-or-break stage basically all the time. We tour a lot, and some of the other (members) have other bands. I am also a booking agent and a mom."
Musical styles of European gypsies—a cultural and ethnic identity also known as Roma, Romani or Romany—form the basis for a large part of the Fishtank repertoire. This adds fascinating depth to the group's sound, since Romani people have scattered all over Europe and the Middle East since originally emigrating from India in the 11th century.
Gypsy musicians recently made worldwide news when Madonna played a concert in Romania with a Roma trio as part of the show. From the stage, Madge publicly admonished Romanians for the discrimination they have practiced against Roma people, inspiring a chorus of boos from the audience.
Although Knudson is sympathetic to Madonna's feelings, she feels the superstar was oversimplifying a culturally complex issue.
"My husband used to live and play with Roma people in Romania, and we talk about this a lot. I mean, absolutely, the Romanians have discriminated against the Roma for centuries, and I agree that it's totally unjustified that they should be treated that way.
"But to have this American singer go into Romania and tell them what they have been doing for so long is wrong, to scold them, saying, 'Now, you stop being racist,' that was a little naïve and a little arrogant and not the best way to bring about positive change."
The complicated history of the Roma people, though, has created a rich musical heritage, one that Fishtank tries to honor and carry on.
"These styles of music are without borders in many ways, because the Roma have moved around. Everywhere they go, they make music, so it picks up influences from each new country they live in. Whatever the music of a country is, it becomes integrated in the Roma music and treated with respect."