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Slavic Soul mates : Fabrice Martinez (right, with fiddle) and Ursula Knudsen of Fishtank Ensemble are bringing the 13-piece Slavic brass band Opa Cupa to the States for the first time.

Balkan Blowout

Opa Cupa brings the Slavic revolution to Don Quixote's

By Andrew Gilbert

Starting in the mid-1990s, French-born fiddler Fabrice Martinez led Croque Mule, a roving band of musicians playing Gypsy music, on an extended sojourn across Europe. Traveling by mule-drawn wagon, the multinational crew wound their way from France to Romania, eventually settling for several years in Salento, at the very tip of Italy's heel. Besides the stunning Mediterranean beauty, one of the region's main attractions was Opa Cupa (pronounced opa tzupa), an innovative break-neck brass band featuring about a dozen players led by trumpeter Cesare dell'Anna.

These days, Martinez lives in Los Angeles with his wife, lustrous vocalist Ursula Knudsen, with whom he co-leads Fishtank Ensemble, a sensational polyglot combo that seamlessly blends jazz and Gypsy music, Japanese shamisen and turbo-charged accordion. Missing his old comrades, Martinez has arranged for dell'Anna and Opa Cupa's rhythm section to join him, Knudsen and Serbian-born Fishtank bassist Djordje Stijepovic for a tour of California that includes this Tuesday's gig at Don Quixote's in Felton. Add Eva Primack, the powerful vocalist from Brooklyn's Slavic Soul Party, into the mix, and you've got a Balkan blowout.

"Soon after we got to Salento, I met these guys from there and I started joining their band for some gigs," Martinez says. "They're an amazing 10- to 13-piece brass band with a modern sound, adding electric bass, drums and Hammond organ for an amazing sound. They play music for parties, funerals, weddings or just about any kind of event.

"The arrangements are very elaborate, but at the same time very communicative and very danceable," Martinez continues. "Even when they're playing bebop improvisation over all these weird time signatures on Balkan rhythms, people get it. Dell'Anna is always open to adding musicians, and trying some new stuff. We used to mix with Arabic singers, or a saxophonist from Serbia, or Romanian cymbalon [hammer dulcimer] player. It's a solid base, so whatever great musicians come around can get onstage. It's very open and very fun."

Something of a crossroads between Greece, North Africa and the southern Balkans, particularly Albania, Salento has a long brass band tradition. Not surprisingly, the region's music has absorbed many of the currents flowing through. Opa Cupa, formed in 1998 by dell'Anna, took its name from a phrase of exaltation often shouted by Gypsies, or Roma, from the southern Balkans to encourage musicians.

The band has assembled a vast repertoire of traditional songs from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, southern Italy and France, but arranged with a decidedly modern sensibility they call Salento-Afro-Balkanian. Masters of the irregular rhythms and odd times signatures that make celebratory Balkan music so thrilling, the band also features accomplished improvisers steeped in jazz.

Already widely respected around Europe, Opa Cupa cemented its status as a leading force in Gypsy-inspired music through two recent collaborations, recording a live album with legendary Macedonian Gypsy singer Esma Redizpova and joining Gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello for a concert last August. As the musical director responsible for writing and arranging most of Opa Cupa's music, dell'Anna decided to make the first trip to the United States with Opa Cupa's drummer and keyboardist. The hope is that these gigs with key Fishtank members will open American doors in the future.

"We couldn't bring the whole band, so the idea is to do a promotional tour to present the project," Martinez says. "But our first priority it that we just want to have fun. A lot of songs mix weird time signatures that not a lot of people in America can play, so he brought his drummer Sergio Quagliarella and this amazing jazz piano player Mauro Tre, who's going to play a Hammond organ with a wah-wah. It's a wild sound."

OPA CUPA plays Tuesday, Nov. 11, at 7:30pm at Don Quixote's, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. Tickets are $10; 831.603.2294 or

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