The itinerant musician roaming the countryside in a Gypsy caravan is the stuff of folktales and history books. No professional musician these days is likely to choose a horse and wagon over an automobile and hotel room. Unless you happen to be Fabrice Martinez. The French-born fiddler did just that, spending a number of years traveling through Europe in a mule-drawn caravan, entertaining the locals and soaking up all the folk music he encountered along the way.
I ran into him in California, where his group "Fishtank Ensemble" was creating quite a buzz at DjangoFest San Francisco. Their "cross-pollinated Gypsy music," as they call it, is reminiscent of the high-energy Romanian village music popularized by the Taraf de Haidouks. But this odd assortment of virtuosic fiddles, guitars, accordion, bass, Japanese shamisen, and even a musical saw crosses musical borders with all the facility of the gens du voyage of old, taking their audiences on a wild ride through French cafes, Hungarian dance halls, and Transylvanian villages.
We were joined in this interview by Fabrice’s wife Ursula Knudson. Vocalist, fiddler, and saw player with Fishtank Ensemble, Ursula sings wonderfully in French, Romanian, and Gypsy dialects. But it was her native English that helped us navigate through some of the twists and turns of Fabrice’s unusual history.
Where did you grow up?
Fabrice: In southern France, most of the time on a péniche, a houseboat on the Canal du Midi. It’s a canal that goes fromBordeaux to Sète. I used to live all around the canal, every year a different place.
And when did you start playing music?
Fabrice: I was fifteen, fourteen, even less. I played some classic guitar. And then I played some rock and roll, you know. Some drums, electric guitar. And then somebody stole all my electric stuff. Everything. So I got an acoustic guitar and I started playing acoustic music. And then a girlfriend wanted to learn violin. At that time I was playing some mandolin and some flute. And the mandolin was the same size as the violin, so I picked up the violin and I showed her how to play. We’d pick up melodies. It could be Irish, French, Italian, whatever. When we broke up, I kept the violin. I just kept playing it. Then we started a band with my brother and a few other guys. We played French folk music for French dances. But very quickly, we put in our repertoire Romanian songs, Greek songs. And the folk community started learning these dances because it was fun to bring in new stuff. After [living on] the boat, I tried to live in a house about six months and I got crazy, so we built wagons and started traveling. We made money playing music around.
Ursula: It was a lifestyle. His brother was a really good musician. His girlfriend was learning music and she’s an excellent musician now. His mom’s boyfriend is a really great musician, so it made sense for them to all play together. Every town that they would stop in, they would get out and put on a little act and try to make money.
I suppose every town has a different market day, so you could go into town and there’d already be an audience for you at the market.
Fabrice: Yeah, exactly. And then we decided to travel out of France. Three wagons and we went in the direction east. We were together till Italy and from Italy we took different roads. I joined the Cirque Bidon and I played the music at the circus. It was both a circus and a theater at the same time. It was all a story and everybody had a character. I played violin, banjolin, some guitar, some double bass.
Ursula: Kind of like Cirque du Soleil. It was not just separated acts but all in kind of a narrative. It was the only circus company left that traveled in horse-drawn wagons.
Fabrice: The circus was pretty big. It had eight wagons, thirteen horses. The city gave us a place. But we managed to go to the main square and keep the horses outside the city.
Ursula: The group was called Croque Mule, which means “mule biters.”
Fabrice: There’s no real translation. It’s a word we used to advise when there was something dangerous on the road. We called it “croque mule” because it’s something that can scare the mule and can create an accident. Then we got to Romania and we traveled for four years all around.
Why did you choose Romania?
Fabrice: Because we liked the music. We already played some Romanian music. The first year, we stopped in this Gypsy village called Csavas. That’s where I learned a lot of Transylvanian Gypsy music.
You were able to find other musicians?
Fabrice: Yeah, it’s easy to find musicians, in general, but even if you find them, they don’t especially play for you. Maybe, maybe not. Everybody wants some money, you know. We didn’t have a lot of money, so living with them, we’d find some sort of exchange, so we’ve been able to “steal” some music.
So you moved into the village.
Fabrice: It was about winter time and we decided to stay.
And they were okay with letting you stay there?
Fabrice: They were super happy. We were a curiosity – French, Italian people coming into a Gypsy village for no reason, you know. With wagons and mules, they’d never seen that before. They’re not traveling any more. They have homes.
How did you pick this particular village?
Fabrice: We met this band SzasCsavas in Budapest at a festival and they told us they were living there. It wasn’t really a good place. It was one of the poorest villages in Romania, probably. The village is separated, you know. You have the Hungarian part… and you have the Tsigania, where the Gypsies lived. And they have two fingers [a dribble] of water for two hundred people and that was the main source of water. In the mud, just two fingers coming out. We spent at least nine months there. We heard a lot of different stories and we understood the conflict between the Hungarians and Gypsies. An event happened in the culture house of the Hungarian part where a Gypsy party was organized. A huge Hungarian guy freaked out and started beating everybody because they were playing Gypsy music and not Hungarian music. And after that it was a big mess because they didn’t know we were not Gypsies and they started beating us. It was very dangerous. After that, we just got mad at the situation and decided to build a culture house in the Gypsy part. We borrowed some money and we built this. It was the beginning of a huge project and my ex-girlfriend is still going on with it. She made a couple of good wells where you can really take water, not like two fingers. We made this association called Nadara to work on the village, and she remains there working on a school for Gypsies.
At what point were they willing to share music with you?
Fabrice: Finally, when we were living there, we had a party every day. Because they liked us, they came to our place, especially the youngest guy, the son of the musicians. They came every day to our place to party. So we just played.
And once you made friends, it was a lot easier to learn music.
Fabrice: It’s not like you learn music in Romania. You steal music. Nobody teaches you music for free. You just look at them and learn. You watch and you play. If they show you something, they show you in the wrong way. They protect themselves. You know, the Hungarians have been very smart. They organize these huge workshops and they bring a lot of people in the village, you know, for a week. And at the beginning it was nice for them. They thought that’s a good way to make money. But then when they [the Hungarians] learned the music, they don’t call anymore for these guys to come play in Budapest. They gave all the music and now nobody calls them. Nobody cares any more.
Ursula: That’s the problem with the cultural fascination with the Gypsies. Even making films about Gypsy villages, like “LatchoDrom.” It sort of gives them hope and promises that things will get better. But people come, they take their photos for their books, they make their films, they learn their music, and they leave. And the Gypsies stay there in the same condition. The kids don’t have shoes in winter.
[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Fall 2008 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Peter Anick, co-author of Mel Bay’s “Old Time Fiddling Across America,” plays fiddle with the Massachusetts bluegrass band Wide Open Spaces (www.wideospaces.com).]