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Fishtank Ensemble performs at Lotus


Fishtank Ensemble brings Romani fusion to Lotus

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By Amelia Chong




Beneath the red spotlight in Jake’s Nightclub, an elderly man held his wife’s hand and twirled her around.

As the last note of “Cou Cou” played, he wiped the sweat off his forehead.

He turned to the “gypsy jazz” quartet onstage and nodded in appreciation.

“We love it when people dance,” said Ursula Knudson, lead singer of Fishtank Ensemble. “The more the audience responds, the more we respond back. It’s like a circular energy thing. It’s great.”

Fishtank Ensemble, based in Los Angeles, blends Turkish, French, Balkan and Spanish musical influences with Romani music.  

The group uses instruments ranging from the violin and flamenco guitar to the banjolele.

Knudson’s operatic voice, lowered to sultry depths in songs such as “Fever,” also rose to a stunningly high octave for “Woman in Sin.”

Fishtank traveled to Bloomington for the first time for the 2012 Lotus World Music and Arts Festival, for which they performed Friday and Saturday.

The band left town Sunday to perform at the Chicago World Music Festival and will play six more shows in four different states before they return home in
October.

***

“Five minutes,” a festival handler announced as she leaned through the door of the green room.

Knudson crossed the room to the big mirror, where she used a finger to blend her wine-red lip liner.

“I really like this,” she said. “It goes with anything.”

Behind her, flamenco guitarist Douglas “Douje” Smolens looked down at his wrist.

His girlfriend, Shaina Feder, buckled a silver bracelet he had bought in Venice around his wrist.

“It’s a special bracelet,” Knudson said.

“Nah,” said Smolens, looking up. “It’s just that a lot of flamenco guitarists wear a lot of, like, gaudy silver chains and stuff. So I thought I’d just get one, too.”

The three men of Fishtank Ensemble — Smolens, Serbian double bass player Djordje Stijepovic and Knudson’s husband, French violinist Fabrice Martinez — were dressed in all-black outfits.

Knudson stood out in her flowy periwinkle-blue dress.

“It looks like a flower,” Knudson said earlier. “We want to put on a show, you know? Let the audience fantasize about what we’re playing.”

***
 
Fishtank, formed in 2005, was named after a performance warehouse where Knudson lived at that time.

The four current members have backgrounds in gypsy music from classical training, informal lessons and listening to other musicians.

Pieces played are either new arrangements of traditional songs or original ones written by band members.

Knudson said music helps Americans understand Romani and other world cultures.

“We can say whatever we want about a culture,” she said. “But once you hear their music, it’s like a window into their culture. You realize there’s so much more to people than just a stereotype, really.”

***
Couples young and old were carefree, dancing wildly inches from the stage during Fishtank’s Saturday performance at Jake’s.

Energized by the crowd, the band responded with the Serbian gypsy number
“Opa Opa.”

Fishtank did not play the upbeat song at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater the night before.

“This one talks about a very serious subject,” Stijepovic said jokingly. “It talks about a woman with a volcano under her skirt.”

As with every song they played, the musicians launched into the song with great gusto.

Knudson and Stijepovic harmonized on the lively melody as Martinez’s bow moved with incredible speed across his violin.

Apart from their dynamic sound, the band has created a dramatic visual style.

During their shows, Stijepovic spins and throws his double bass in the air and catches it.

Martinez creates strange sound effects by pulling on a strand of hair from his bow that is tied to a violin string.

The distinct sound is created due to the friction caused by rosin between the bow and the string, Knudson said.

Knudson later recited a translated line from “Smyrneiko Minore,” a rembetiko, or Greek folk song.

“If you love me and this is a dream, let me never wake up,” she said. “In the early light of dawn, God takes my soul away.”

Fishtank will record the rembetiko for its next album, “Edge of the World.” The band needs to raise $15,000 before they record in October, according to its website.

Half the money has already been raised, Knudson said.

“When you give love, we give back,” she said.

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Ursula Knudson of Fishtank Ensemble smiles as she sings during a performance Friday night at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, as part of this year's Lotus World Music & Arts Festival. Amelia Chong Buy Photos
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Ursula Knudson, lead vocalist of gypsy jazz group Fishtank Ensemble, colors her lips with a MAC lipliner, in Spice, in the green room at Jake's Nightclub a few minutes before going on stage. The band performed Saturday night at Jake's, as part of this year's Lotus World Music & Arts Festival. Amelia Chong Buy Photos
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A bar patron stands at the foot of the stage, watching intensely, as Ursula Knudson and Djordje Stijepovic of Fishtank Ensemble perform Saturday night at Jake's Nightclub, as part of this year's Lotus World Music & Arts Festival. Amelia Chong Buy Photos
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Fishtank Ensemble's lead vocalist Ursula Knudson raises her arm and arches her back as she hits the last note of the encore song the band performed Saturday night at Jake's Nightclub, as part of the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival this year. Amelia Chong Buy Photos

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