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Fishtank Ensemble to bring European music style to Berryville

The band Fishtank Ensemble is shown in a promotional photo, with lead singer and musical saw performer Ursula Knudson, at front, holding a banjo. From left, are guitarist Douglas "Douje" Smolen, French violinist Fabrice Martinez and Serbian bassist Djordje Stjepovic. The L.A-based band will perform at Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Courtesy photo

By Josette Keelor

Most out-of-state performers who come to Berryville's Barns of Rose Hill are discovering the small community music venue for the first time. Many are also discovering the Northern Shenandoah Valley for the first time.

Not Ursula Knudson.

The Sacramento, Calif., resident was here in February to perform with the band Vagabond Opera.

It's fitting she'll return Wednesday night with the band Fishtank Ensemble. Both perform such a variety of high energy musical styles -- even mixing several into any given song -- that audiences won't know what to expect from one moment to the next.

Fishtank's musical styles hail from Serbia, Romania and Transylvania, taking on flamenco, Gypsy, opera and New Orleans jazz.

Lead singer Knudson studied opera, but she learned much of what she knows on the streets of Italy before returning to California in 2005 with French violinist Fabrice Martinez to pursue a career in the states. Guitarist Douglas "Douje" Smolen played in the gypsy caves of Granada, Spain, and Serbian bass player Djordje Stjepovic performed with gypsies and rock and roll legends, according to the band's website, fishtankensemble.com.

The band's name happened by accident, because at the time members were practicing in a room painted sea green, and they needed a name for a gig. But it also references how fish of many different colors, shapes, styles and sizes tend to mingle together in one tank.

That's Fishtank Ensemble.

Knudson attributes her vocal range to her years spent studying opera.

"I learned how to change my voice around," she said recently by phone from Los Angeles.

The notes she can reach seem like they would lose themselves in ceiling rafters, but Knudson said she thinks she probably reaches only four octaves.

"Performances is when so much of the learning takes place," she said. "The real magic happens and changes and becomes what [it is] during performance."

The band's latest album, "Woman in Sin," includes the Gypsy jazz title song as well as Serbian Party song "Opa Opa" and blues favorite "Fever," which starts off with jazz notes plucked from the depths of an upright bass.

Songs on the album use the musical saw, banjolele, and flamenco and gypsy jazz guitar. Knudson's voice changes with each song.

"Fever" is one of her favorites, even though it's a cover.

"I really like the way 'Opa Opa' was recorded on that one," she said.

She said she tried making the 1918 song "After You've Gone" her own while also not ignoring the style. The band begins the song at a quick bluegrass clip. Then Knudson's voice takes off, time-warping the song back to the roaring 20s.

"I kind of made up this voice," she said.

"I wasn't trying to [sound like anyone], but then people say it sounds like Billie Holiday," she said.

"I said OK, cool, thank you."

Knudson said the band plays what it thinks Americans will like but not expect.

"American tourists, they don't really understand street music," Knudson said. When she and Martinez met in Italy, she was traveling with a theater group in a horse-drawn wagon, from France to Romania.

Every few days they would play in the street and make enough money to buy groceries for eight people, but it was the Europeans who paid their bills.

Americans, she said, "They think it's all there for their touring pleasure." They'll listen, take pictures, enjoy the music, then leave. Luckily, prices on food in Italy were next to nothing, Knudson said.

"It's a nice life," she said.

She and Martinez moved to L.A. because "we had a vision."

In Fishtank, they play folk music from various cultures, trying not to be too traditional.

"If anything, we try to rearrange it so it's more our style," Knudson said.

"We do a lot of solos, so you never know what's going to happen with those," she said. "It's a lot of improv to be honest."

She recommended those who come out to Rose Hill on Wednesday night put on their dancing shoes.

"I know it's a great audience at the Barns of Rose Hill, and I'm really looking forward to playing there."

Fishtank Ensemble will perform at the Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville, at 8 p.m Wednesday. Tickets are $15 at the door, or $12 in advance. For more information, call 540-955-2004 or visit barnsofrosehill.org.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com


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