Fishtank Ensemble titled its new CD Samurai Over Serbia, partly as a tribute to the rollicking Balkan-Gypsy-Klezmer dance band’s thoroughly un-balkanized mixture of musical cultures — with a Japanese shamisen alongside accordion, violins, guitar, and bass — but also as a welcome mat for Fishtank’s bassist, Djordje Stijepovic, born and raised in Serbia. Stijepovic is, in the words of accordionist Aaron Seeman, “a serious student of slap-bass technique,” so much so that he slaps his double bass around in both Gypsy and rockabilly settings ever since moving from Serbia to San Francisco last year. He joined Fishtank in early 2007. As it happened, lead violinist Fabric Martinez already had a tune in the repertoire, “The Serb,” but now it’s been retitled “Samurai Over Serbia.”
Aside from Stijepovic, Fishtank’s high-energy, shindig-in-the-courtyard folk music has an authentic Eastern European tilt thanks to Martinez and his wife, singer-violinist-saw player Ursula Knudson. Both musicians found their footing in Europe — Martinez in his native France as well as Romania, Knudson in France and Italy, where they lived before moving to Southern California. The rich accordion harmonies come from Oakland-based Seeman, who splits his time with his own one-man show, Duckmandu. Meanwhile Mike Penny, a former student of original Fishtanker Kevin Kmetz, uses his shamisen for forays into Japanese folk (with Knudson on vocals) and even gets a tsimbalom-like sound for the Serbian melodies. Need a few more musical threads? Guitarist Doug Smolens specializes in flamenco and Django Reinhardt swing.
The multi-cultiness is deliberate, says Seeman, who acknowledges the Bay Area as the number-one hotbed of cross-cultural music and “whole world” attitudes. “It has something to do with the politics,” insisted Seeman on the phone from a camping trip in Mendocino County. “People in the Bay Area are interested in other cultures. We look away from America, because really America is not the only culture in the world.”
Now is the time to catch Fishtank, while they’re still playing cozy venues like Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage. They take the stage Saturday evening (doors 7:30 p.m.) at the venerable folk club, “one of the best places in the US to play,” according to Seeman. Yugo hear them, Yugo crazy. Tickets: $18.50 advance from TheFreight.org