There is a famous scene in the movie, Chariots of Fire,
in which runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams are in a dead heat during an
Olympic race. Harold Abrahams glances at Eric Liddell to see how he’s doing,
and that disruption of focus costs him the race. The thrill of victory and the
agony of defeat, as it were!
The reason I mention this is that the Fishtank Ensemble, as
a band, is still relatively under the radar. The music world has countless
bands and singers competing for the attention of the public, but many of them
seem to be glancing at the competition rather than focusing on their own
This band is an amalgamation of individuals who have steeped
themselves in various genres, and like a fine restaurant, have a musical
kitchen stocked with rare wines, exotic spices, tempting delicacies and feasts
for the ears.
The astounding set we witnessed in Portland was like a
shifting of seismic plates that issued forth a tsunami of mesmerizing rhythms
and harmonies. The band members are nearly like citizens of different planets.
Fabrice Martinez, born in France, is an accomplished
musician on many instruments, although we witnessed him as a wizard of the violin.
Lean in body and face, with earrings and a bohemian haircut, he played primarily in the
Roma (calloquially called gypsy) style. He looked serious for most of the show, except for endearing moments
when he beamed warmly into the face of his young son who was near the stage
playing, dancing and swinging on a pole during the performance. Fabrice spent eight years traveling
in France, Italy and Eastern Europe in a caravan he built himself, pulled by a
mule, while he studied ethnic music in its raw forms.
This is where female chanteuse, Ursula Knudson, also on
musical travels, met Fabrice. They later married and continued performing and
traveling, continuously adding to their repertoire of songs and musical styles. Knudson is a
classically trained vocalist, who likens her style to the exotic Peruvian singer,
Yma Sumac, who possessed a four and a half octave
range. Knudson traverses vocally between Maria Callas, Betty Boop and Peggy
Lee, undulating and purring behind half-open eyes and what some might say is a very
friendly facial expression. Add to her vocal dimensions that she is an
accomplished violinist, miniature banjo-ist and plays the musical saw. She has quite the astonishing array of skills!
Douglas, “el douje” Smolens spent his life immersed in
Flamenco music and also played rock and roll. He looked almost like he belonged
in a country western band, with his sturdy body, short blond hair and cowboy
shirt, but his powerful hands were very impressive, snapping out dozens of
arpeggio falsetas interwoven with everything else the band was playing. He is a
very solid and accomplished component of this unique group.
Topping off this impressive quartet is Djordje Stijepovic, a
Serbian rockabilly slap-bassist. He had a masterful and commanding presence and
although I did not get a chance to look at his hands, they must have been as
calloused as bear paws. He is billed as one of the best slap-bassists in the
world and I believe it.
They played what could be classified as “world music”, but
ground through their own musical sausage maker. Their manouche or “Django”
type gypsy tunes, Greek, Serbian or Romanian folksongs, or interpretation of music by George Frederic
Handel was a nonstop frenzy, smoked above a fire of
When Fabrice broke and changed a violin string, Ursula captivated the
crowd with a smoldering cover of the Peggy Lee hit, “Fever”, while Djordje
snapped out the libidinous, familiar bass line.
At the end of their set, the child with the long blond hair
that had been doing gymnastics opposite Fabrice’s beaming smiles, was hoisted
up onto the body of Djordje’s bass, and slapped the strings in sync with him.
Of course, that melted the hearts of everyone in the audience. Then he jumped
down from the bass when Fabrice began to coax squeaky notes from a dangling violin string that he pulled between his fingers. The boy, after greasing up his own fingers, did the same. Oh, to grow up
on the road with touring parents. Let’s wait to hear from this boy in ten
years, when he’s playing in his own band.
Fishtank Ensemble has an entirely original sound, start to
finish, top to bottom, imitating no-one, yet playing anything and everything
with zest and passion. They may not appeal to everyone, but fans of any genre
would be impressed. They finished to standing ovations. Check out their website
Press photo from their website
For music lovers visiting Portland, Maine, I highly recommend
One Longfellow Square ~ "Portland's Premier Arts Venue"
Check them out at onelongfellowsquare.com.