FISH-ICAL FITNESS

FISHTANK ENSEMBLE ON THE LINE

BY JOEL OKIDA

fishtank_l.jpg

Onstage, the six figures casually go to their marks and arm themselves with their respective instruments. The lights dim briefly and soon the allusion to armament becomes clear. Fishtank Ensemble fires away and attacks their music with fervor and demonstrative spirit. Although violinist Fabrice Martinez remains, for the most part, cool and calm, and wife, Ursula Knudson, can be sultry or smooth, when they line up with flamenco-style guitarist Doug "El Douje" Smolens and double bass-slapping Serb Djordje Stijepovic, together they bring the heat, intense and fiery Romani, Balkan, gypsy-jazz and cross-bred original tunes. Two new additions to the band appear in the form of the brothers Joshan and Justin Petrovic, also known as the Petrovic Blasting Company. Josh plays the accordion and brother, Justin, switches back and forth on trombone and trumpet. This combination fills the void left by last year's departing accordion and shamisen musicians.

Just before Fishtank Ensemble took the stage at a recent concert at Altadena's The Coffee Gallery Backstage, lissome Ursula Knudson, vocalist, violinist, banjolele-ist, percussionist, saw player and band spokesperson, had time for a brief update on the band's evolution, a growing baby, forays with other bands (Fabrice into Albanian/Italian/Rom/Balkan band: Opa Cupa, Ursula with Portland's own Balkan hybrid: Vagabond Opera), and the business of being in a gypsy band that, like the name implies, must keep moving on.

"With the outside projects that you and Fabrice are involved in, is it difficult to keep Fishtank focused on what it's supposed to be doing?," I asked her.

"Yes and no. Speaking for myself, I hold up my end! I work really hard. Regardless of anything, it's hard to keep up Fishtank because, musically, we have to come up with something incredibly difficult. We set the bar pretty high in the beginning so we know we have to keep that up. It's pretty hard. I'm getting better at promos, and the business end of it. But it's a lot of work!"

"And then you played with Vagabond Opera, recently, although you were doing some of your own songs....."

"When I joined them, they wanted me to sing these songs that we (Fishtank) do. In my mind, that's like public property, like Tchavo (from Samurai over Serbia). We didn't write that so it was okay. Working with Vagabond Opera was really great. Because of the business part with Fishtank, the music doesn't happen for me until I'm on stage. With Vagabond, I got to grow as an artist."

"And you toured in Greece with them..."

"Oh, in Greece, they still smoke in bars-!"

"So it destroyed your voice?"

"Yeah, after seven days, me and Eric (Stern, operatic tenor vocalist & accordionist for Vagabond Opera) had enough."

Knowing she had gotten married and had a baby during the life of the band, I asked the obvious, "How is it balancing family and work?"

"Also a challenge! We're getting better at it. If you remember, we used to take Ezra to all of our shows. Now, he's at the babysitter's and he really likes it because she has a kid, too. It's always a challenge. I ask myself, how long can I do this? But I've been doing it for 3 years now. I think, in a sense, I've made certain sacrifices because of my family. And I think we would have started touring a lot earlier, but as long as everyone in the band is willing to make the sacrifice, it's okay. We're going to New York for the first time in April. We're doing a week of performances and will get a lot of good exposure. But that's taken a few years to do that. Last year, we went to Colorado for the first time. We've been very West Coast-oriented because of my family situation."

"New York has a strong Balkan music scene, doesn't it?"

"You know Luminiscent Orchestrii? They're out of Brooklyn. We're friends with them, great people. One of them asked me to do the "Balkan Shout Out" and asked us to headline that show. My parents are going to keep Ezra. We booked a 7-day tour. We're really excited to be in New York!"

Although their last recording was released in 2007, I inquired, "What's the status of a new CD?"

"Because of the recent changes (personnel), we didn't perform for about 5 months. We got an offer to record in a studio later in September so we're kind of waiting on that. We have a lot of material that we've been wanting to record."

My one quirky question is perhaps one I would ask anyone who plays an uncommon instrument and I had to ask, "With your operatic and classical violin training, how did the saw come into your repertoire?"

"Oh, it's such an ordinary story! I had a friend in a jug band when I lived in Sacramento. I said I'd like to play an instrument, kind of an odd instrument. He said, "Why don't you play the saw?" I said, "Okay!" So I went out to Lark in the Morning and bought a saw. The guy there showed me how to play it and then I played and played it. I approached it like a normal instrument. I'd play scales and then one day, it just hit me. I can play anything I want! I don't even have to hear it (a song)! It sounds funny, but I totally loved it."

Although now residing in Los Angeles, and seemingly content with what the city has to offer, I did have to ask, "Any desire to move back to Italy or anywhere else in Europe in these ‘hard' times?

"We were in Italy for 3 years...kind of funny, we said we can go back anytime, but we're firmly planted here, committed to things fully. Of course, we spent 3 months in Turkey, 3 months in Rumania. But our wagon (van) is in L.A.! We put it in a container and it's waiting in the Port of Long Beach. And it's going to come to our driveway! I'm not kidding!"

Fabrice has toured around on a gypsy caravan and played with the Albanian band Opa Cupa when he lived abroad. Last year, he again played with a smaller version of that band when they visited here on a short tour. "Is Fabrice going to continue working with Opa Cupa?"

"They asked us to organize another tour. I said it's a lot of work. If they want to come to New York, he'll join them there. Opa Cupa is a nine-person group, but they can't bring all nine people with them. I'm bringing out another guy who does a lot of rebetiko, Mediterranean-focused music. I'm planning to bring him out in November. Yet another project."

"And you will sing with him (them)?"

"Yes, I made a conscious decision not to sing with Opa Cupa because I know them (and their music). I thought Eva (Primack of Slavic Soul Party and AE) would be more appropriate for them because she is such an amazing singer in that style. I don't think I could go on tour with those guys (laughs). With a kid, it's just too much for me. We'd be doing so much work to get a tour together, I know I'd be exhausted."

"Is the so-called gypsy music scene becoming a movement and is there an audience that is growing out there?"

"That's what tomorrow is all about. In New York, they have those "Balkan Nights". I know there's a Balkan scene there like Café Aman, people who do Balkan dancing; it is a scene."

"And like Nevenka and the folk dancing scene here?"

"Yeah, like Nevenka and music associated with UCLA. But I want to do something in a club, with a DJ; I don't know if that's been done here, recently. I want to bring that to the club and hopefully get people of all ages out. I put on our concert flyers: DJ Sukar, which means beautiful in Rom. And I lied because there is no DJ! Because it was me! I basically put together some good music as we have a really good library. Eventually, if we do this again and it's even more popular, I'll get a real DJ; like in San Francisco, DJ- David. I think he does Balkan. I would get him, but for now there's the music, the belly dancer - Se7en, the brothers Petrovic and us. And hopefully people will enjoy it."

Fishtank Ensemble appears at the El Rey Theater (www.theelrey.com) on April 20, Django Fest LA (www.djangofest.com) on April 24, and Boulevard Music (www.boulevardmusic.com) on May 16.

Their CDs, Super Raoul and Samurai over Serbia are available thru CDbaby.

For more information, go to:

www.fishtankensemble.com or www.reverbnation.com/fishtankensemble

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.