In Roma with Fishtank Ensemble

Oh Fishtank, to live in a wagon and wear hats like that one...

In the United States, the term “gypsy” has come to signify a certain bohemian nomadry. A silver bangled, many skirted, sultry way of banging a tambourine. But more deeply,“gypsy” refers to a rich cultural Euro-Asian heritage, more correctly termed Roma -- a culture that has brought to the world the frenetic riffs and musical arabesques of Roma tunesters Fishtank Ensemble, who will play at the DeYoung Museum Fri/9.

But first, let it be said: the members of Fishtank Ensemble are not themselves Roma. “The history of the group is that we’ve all had experience with Roma people and the music. It seemed like a natural transition to want to play, and though we know so little about the music, we’re always wanting to learn more,” says Ursula Knudson, Fishtank’s lead vocalist.

Fishtank bonded over roads from vastly different climes (members of the group hail from places as disparate as Serbia and Los Angeles) that culminated on a common plane; a love for Roma music. One had spent time volunteering in Roma villages, one learning the “styles and tricks” of their musical genre in Roma caves overlooking the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain.

Violinist Fabrice Martinez, now married to Knudson, traveled Europe in a covered wagon he made himself. “He wanted to travel, but he didn’t want to drive a car… or walk… or hitch hike,” explains Knudson. The two, who met one starstruck evening while Felice strummed his violin in Venice, eventually built a wagon of their own in Europe, and shipped it to California -- where it is currently spending time housing a friend in Venice until the day Knudson and Martinez can afford a space to accommodate it.

There’s a reason that Fishtank must be clear about their connection to the upbeat tunes they play.

An autobiographical note: when I was but a young pup, cruising the Spanish calles for a smattering of “cultural experience,” I got robbed. A lot. This was no doubt due to my group’s penchant for public inebriation, and frankly, we probably deserved each pick-pocketing for our sheer opaqueness. Nevertheless, many Spaniards would blame it on the “gitanos,” their slur for “gypsy.” “Those good for nothings,” “Always be careful if you see the gypsies around, hold onto your valuables.” Roma ethnic groups have been historically derided and socio-economically isolated in many of their European home countries. In the States, advocacy groups like Voice of Roma work tirelessly to stop the spread of such prejudicial views of the Roma people.

Knudson gets it. “There’s a delicate balance between making this accessible to American audiences and respecting this rich musical heritage,” she tells me. She says cultural fidelity (in addition to a foot stomping good time) is one of Fishtank’s goals in their performances. “We want to make it as non diluted as possible.”

But Roma ditties, forged in the paradoxically inspiring heat of social marginalization, are too good not to share with the world. “There are somber songs [but] lots of [Roma songs] are about partying and dancing and joy -- its real, look on the bright side music,” says Knudson. The group loves to bring their danceable folk beats to San Francisco, where Knudson says they have their best shows.

All the better for us. Fishtank’s klezmer-like whirlwinds of sound are twisting, twirling get downs that do us the distinct favor of reminding us that the ruling classes will never, ever, have the best parties.

Fri/9 6:30 p.m., free

DeYoung Museum

50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, SF

415) 750-3600


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