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Fishtank Ensemble as diverse as Mountain Fair

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoThe California-based Fishtank Ensemble makes its valley debut with a Saturday, July 26 appearance at the Carbondale Mountain Fair.
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CARBONDALE Its a crazy mish-mash of things that shouldnt go together but somehow it works. It attracts young and old, all different races and segments of society. It can be loud and weird and slightly chaotic, with all the different elements and accents bumping up against each other, but ultimately it achieves a grand harmony, based on the idea of having fun.Its a description that fits the Carbondale Mountain Fair though what I had in mind was Fishtank Ensemble, a California band that makes its Roaring Fork Valley debut with a set at Mountain Fair on Saturday at 2 p.m. If the idea behind Mountain Fair is to slap together a bunch of far-flung components foot races and rock n roll, wood-splitting competitions and Dr. Seuss The Lorax, martial arts and arts & crafts, ballet and pie-baking contests and see how it all hangs together, then the Fishtank Ensemble might prove to be the ultimate Mountain Fair band. Bands with extremely diverse styles have been known to mix it up at Mountain Fair, the 37th edition of which opens Friday and runs through Sunday in Carbondales Sopris Park. Leftover Salmon made an early-90s appearance with its collision of zydeco, bluegrass and rock; a year or so later, String Cheese Incident brought its fusion of funk and bluegrass to the gazebo in Sopris Park. But trying to find one with as broad a sensibility as the Fishtank Ensemble might be futile. The groups music is rooted in Eastern European gypsy music, but includes elements of Spanish flamenco, opera, klezmer, Swedish folk and a dash of Japanese sounds.Weve taken as many different sources as we can and make suites of music, cramming different songs together, said the groups guitarist Douglas Smolens, who goes by the stage name of El Douje. You cant be a flamenco guitarist with the name Doug, he explains.) It was sort of surprising to us that all this works together, that you could take all these styles and have them make sense.Smolens, who grew up and currently lives in Los Angeles, says that one factor in making it all blend is the speed with which the Fishtank Ensemble came together and developed its sound. In 2004, Smolens was living in Santa Cruz, playing flamenco guitar, working as a road manager for a jazz band led by drummer Dave Weckl, and teaching himself music production. A friend and musical associate, Aaron Seeman, called one day from Oakland, advising him to come check out a violinist, Fabrice Martinez. A Romanian who had spent his teenage years traveling around Europe with his mother and brother in a mule-drawn caravan, Martinez had a genuine background with the gypsy violin music that both Smolens and Seeman loved.Boy. Id heard people play like that because Im a fan of this type of music, said the 34-year-old Smolens, who had grown up playing drums in an experimental rock band before discovering Eastern European folk music, and then falling hard for Spanish flamenco guitar. But Id never heard anyone like this watching those fingers pulling off the melodies and trills. The minute I walked in, we said, Wow, we have to play with these guys.A jam session formed on the spot, in a performance warehouse in Oakland. The players were Ursula Knudson, a trained opera singer from California; the Swedish-born Seeman, an accordionist; Martinez; Smolens; and another Californian, Kevin Kmetz, who had made the drive with Smolens from Santa Cruz. Kmetz played the shamisen, a three-stringed, Japanese approximation of the banjo. An onlooker asked what the group called themselves; one of the musicians, noting that the warehouse was called the Fishtank, responded that it was the Fishtank Ensemble.The band soon began gathering in Santa Cruz for further sessions. One night, while they were having dinner at the Almar Grill, the manager offered the group a date at the restaurant. That prompted them to add a bassist Serbian-born Djordje Stijepovic and assemble a repertoire of 20 gypsy songs. At their first gig, at the Almar, someone from the audience proposed to give the band financial backing to make a CD. The debut album, Super Raoul, was released in late 2005.The Fishtank Ensembles second CD, released last fall, is titled Samurai Over Serbia, which fairly hints at the range of the music. The foundation is clearly European. But which part of Europe it comes from is a big question mark, as Knudson sings in Romanian, French, English, and two gypsy languages Roma, from Eastern Europe, and Manouche, a language of French gypsies with a bit of Japanese thrown in. The instrumental Gitanos Californeros (which translates as California guitarists) would seem to come from the south of Spain, where Smolens trained for several months. Extremely Large Congenial Romanian sounds like something out of an Italian comic folk opera. Mehum Mato could almost be the original great gypsy band, the Hot Club of France, except that the guitar licks have a Spanish flair, and there are those high-pitched, other-worldly vocals. Yasaburo Bushi is Eastern-derived; Spirit Prison is almost Vaudevillian. Tying the songs together are the propulsive rhythms, which often threaten to send the band flying off the tracks. Smolens chalks that up to the bassist, Stijepovic, who plays an upright bass, but uses the slap technique common to electric bassists.Its a very percussive technique, said Smolens. You get a lot of sound out of it. It sounds like both bass and drums, a lot of driving force. Nobody does it how he does; it provides a power to the music.Despite the driving rhythm, and the fact that gypsy music was originally intended as dance music, Smolens says that, oddly, audiences tend to listen to Fishtank Ensemble as though it were a concert band.We blend so many styles together, audiences tend to be in awe of our music, he said. They tend to sit and watch, because its very intricate. But its dance music.I suggested that the band introduce another style perhaps disco into the sound. But Smolens had another idea.We want to incorporate a drummer or percussionist, he said. Were going to modify our set, to get people to dance. Thats where the music reaches its power, when its not just a concert-like thing, with people sitting and watching.The Fishtank Ensemble performs at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Carbondale Mountain Fair, in Sopris Park, downtown Carbondale.Go to http://www.aspentimes.com/events for the full Mountain Fair schedule.stewart@aspentimes.com


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