ARTIST: Fishtank Ensemble

TITLE: Samurai over Serbia

By Joel Okida

fishtank.jpgThe whimsical name of the group belies the fact that these musicians play hard, fast, and serious. There’s nothing fishy about them. In fact, there’s no slouching or mannered excesses, as Fishtank Ensemble comes armed, loaded and ready to serve you up a platter of intense nearly cosmic gypsy music. Their latest CD release, Samurai Over Serbia, samples the global plain that is the group’s playing field. Like the gypsies, it crosses borders, villages, continents, and time periods showcasing the varied instrumental prowess of each member and the extreme range of vocalist, Ursula Knudson who also can double up on violin, banjolele and the musical saw.

The recording further exemplifies the variety of music that Fishtank covers which was demonstrated in their first independent album, Super Raoul. Although both recordings have many high points, there is no substitute for seeing them perform on stage. Each member possesses both personal instrumental talent and a strong connection to the other members of the ensemble. The high energy act is both fluid and dynamic with speed and timing a key element to the often complex arrangements of songs. If you’re not hypnotized by the singing and beauty of chanteuse, Ursula Knudson, you’re trying to absorb the panorama of these fishes soloing or weaving in and out of each other’s musical runs.

On Samurai Over Serbia, traditional eastern European, gypsy jazz, klezmer and original tunes are arranged to fit the ensemble’s unconventional, but imaginative sound. Violinist, Fabrice Martinez, spearheads most tunes with his dazzling gypsy bowings. The added mystique is the inclusion of a bonus track, Yasaburpo Bush, that highlights the shamisen playing of Mike Penny. Although many would believe that a Japanese string instrument in an eastern European flavored band would run counterpoint to anyone’s rational thinking, here amongst the innovative arrangements, the instrument fits in nicely and is neither stark or obtrusive. The title tune gives proof of the iconic instrument and the inventive interpretation that make it fit. Penny’s distinctive soloing rides above the ensemble layering while Martinez plays with fiery passion and Knudson trills the scales almost eerily across the gypsy jam.

Although you can’t see the stunning Ursula Knudson, she gets her point across vocally, on Tchavo. Since octave limitations don’t seem to occur in her wide open register, she can skyrocket to stemware breaking range on any given song, but is all style and grace in a smoldering reading of this song. Spirit Prison allows her to channel a little Billie Holiday and scat above the shamisen pickings and her own “saw” bending strokes. Kurt Weill’s dreamy Havana-style tango, Youkali comes alive with her utilizing a true operatic soprano, accompanied by Seeman’s punchy accordion, underscoring the melody.

The rest of the band are no slouches and guitarist, el Douje, a.k.a. Douglas Smolens, acquits himself nicely on the flamenco-flavored Gitanos Californeros. This homage to guitar great Paco de Lucia, showcases the deft touch of el Douje and his inspired playing on this carefully crafted song.

The oft rainbow-tressed Aaron Seeman, who may appear quite the eccentric in person is in fact a demon on the piano accordion and gives credence to this acclaim on nearly every tune on the CD and provides the  arrangement for  a peppy “Turkish March”, a Mozart composition, where an authoritative rendering is displayed by all players.  The response to an earlier Super Raou track entitled, Itty Bitty Snitty Little Frenchman, appears here in a Seeman penned tune called, Extremely Large Congenial Romanian. With its Balkan flavoring and waltz to near polka beat, the song though humorous in title, clearly demonstrates the adept playing of Seeman and some tasty sawing again by Knudson.

Since you can’t have them in your aquarium every Saturday night, find this CD and imagine their fingers flying and Ursula’s vocals soaring just for you, right there in your own private octopus’ garden.

On Samurai Over Serbia, Fishtank Ensemble is:

Fabrice Martinez - Violin and Violomba

Ursula Knudson - Vocals, Violin, Musical Saw, Banjolele, Percussion

Douglas Smolens (el Douje) - Guitar

Aaron Seeman (Duckmandu)- accordion

Djordje Stijepovic: Upright Bass

Andy Zacharias - Upright Bass

Mike Penny- Tsuguru Shamisen, guitar

Kevin Kmetz- additional Shamisen, guitar

Samurai Over Serbia is an independent recording and available at

More information at:

Upcoming performances:

Nov. 8    8pm   Tangier

Nov. 9   10pm  AFI Film Festival

Nov. 10 ..8pm   FolkMusicCenter, Claremont

Nov. 11 6:30pm ..The Echo

Joel Okida is a struggling artist, struggling writer, and struggling musician. It occurs to him that life is all about the struggle. Fortunately, he did not take up acting. However, he's not half-bad as a zydeco dancer and the ability to make a mean gumbo and lovely walnut tortes has gotten him by.