The Performant: When in Roma

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Wild brass and shaking floors at the Kafana Balkan party.

Hi-ho, the gypsy life. While the reality of living as a member of a marginalized, nomadic population is really not quite the Technicolor dream romance conjured by 19th century poets and Hollywood producers, the music created by the roaming “Romani” is as lushly romantic as it gets. Combining exuberance with melancholy, abandonment with abandon, musical traditions as far-flung as Spanish Flamenco, Romanian Manele, Gypsy jazz, and even the youthful strains of modern-day Gypsy punk, have a way of getting under the skin right on down to the toes—which will almost assuredly be tapping. Label it folk music if you must, but don’t expect a lot of polite purists holding forth while holding back. Gypsy music is party music, and Zeljko Petkovic aka DJ Zeljko’s (in)famous Kafana Balkan evenings are always one of the consistently best parties in town.

Last Saturday night at the Kafana Balkan party, after a DJ set of Balkan standards which buzzed boisterously through the hushed Baroque atmosphere of the Great American Music Hall, the Fishtank Ensemble climbed out of its fishbowl and onto the stage, strings at the ready. Currently a solid quartet, this LA-based group (formerly of the Bay Area) marries the fiery violins of Fabrice Martinez with the multi-instrumental talents and soaring “Queen of the Night” vocals of Ursula Knudson, the intricate flamenco guitar-picking of Douglas “Douje” Smolens, and the rockabilly slap bass wielded by Djordje Stijepovic. Combining a hodge-podge of disparate styles and influences, Fishtank's quixotic musical mélange criss-crosses the European continent, from Serbia to Seville, while their street-preacher intensity electrifies.

Martinez in particular, whose life-long commitment to “gypsy music” found him traveling around Europe for years in a mule-drawn cart, exudes an otherworldly musical charisma that makes it difficult to tear your eyes and ears away. Thankfully the visual distractions provided by the luscious belly-dancing of Chantal Schoenherz, special musical guest Peter Jaques, and the rock-and-roll antics of Stijepovic did provide a balanced levity to the set, which included Fishtank originals such as “Gitanos Californeros” and “Woman in Sin” as well as nods to Django Reinhardt, Serbian drinking songs, and Spanish-language longing.

If plenty of personal space is your “thing,” then an evening spent with follow-up act the ferociously talented Brass Menažeri will perhaps not appeal. But for the rest of us, the combination of brass band dynamics infused with an imitable Balkan spirit (no, not rakia), can’t fail to inspire. An oddience that can stand still during the aural onslaught of seven horns, a snare drum, and the mellifluous vocals of Briget Boyle is not an oddience that typically shows up to Kafana Balkan, the respectable camouflage of button-down shirts and nice shoes notwithstanding. At one point during a raucous, elongated version of Šaban Bajramović’s “Opa Cupa” my companion J. pointed out that the floor was actually shaking beneath the bouncing weight of so many dancing feet. Though itself highly orchestrated under the musical direction of clarinetist Peter Jaques, the Menažeri inspired the celebratory spontaneity and cathartic release of a pagan solstice.

So much so that afterwards, tumbling back onto the street, sweaty and euphoric, even the heavy drizzling fog felt like a gift.

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