Hejira world music radio show host Jeff Spitzer-Resnick had the opportunity to interview Oscar Peñas, a guitarist-composer from Spain now living in Harlem, about his beautiful new album Almadraba featuring legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter. Here is a lightly edited (for clarity) transcript of the interview.
JSR: Okay. I should have Oscar Peñas on the phone, are you there, Oscar?
Oscar Peñas: Hello. How are you?
JSR: Wonderful. I’m good. It’s still morning here in Wisconsin. I should have asked, where are you right now?
Oscar Peñas: I’m in Harlem right now in New York, actually it’s 11 AM.
JSR: So, we’ve been playing the first three cuts actually off your new album Almadraba and before we get to talking about the album and how you put it together, many of our listeners may not know much about you. So you live in Harlem, but as I understand it, you’re originally from Spain. Is that correct?
Oscar Peñas: Yes. I was born and raised in Barcelona. That’s in the northeast of Spain.
JSR: When did you come to the States? Are you living here now or are you just kind of on a stopover?
Oscar Peñas: I’ve been living here most of my so-called adult life. I came here for college in the late nineties. I spent three years here, then I went back home for seven years, but then I’ve been living in the United States since 2005, so about 17 years now.
JSR: All right. And your background is as a guitarist and as a composer.
Oscar Peñas: Correct. I started as a kid with a classical guitar. I didn’t go far in that path, then I switched to jazz, and I started writing my own songs as steadily as I could.
JSR: So, has there been a theme throughout your music or is it constantly evolving? Tell us some background for where you’re coming from musically.
Oscar Peñas: I don’t come from a very musical family. Although my grandfather was a professional trumpeter, the music was not around in my family that much. The kind of music that was played in my family was like singer-songwriters from the seventies in Spain that people may not be that acquainted, with like a guy such as Paco Ibañez and folk songs. It would be the equivalent to a Bob Dylan here. But I was interested in strumming chords, as many do. From then on I explored a little bit of classical repertoire, but I didn’t find it challenging enough in my life because it requires a lot of practice, but you couldn’t pick up your note.
You had to commit (to be in) solitude to a room to practice a lot. So, I didn’t enjoy that perspective that much. That’s when I started to study jazz in a school over there.
JSR: In Spain, still?
Oscar Peñas: In Spain. When I was 17, I was finishing my high school. That’s what brought me to Berklee.
JSR: Berklee School of Music?
Oscar Peñas: That’s correct, yeah. I came here from ‘97 until December of ‘99 and that was my first long stay in the United States.
JSR: That got you into jazz.
Oscar Peñas: Well, I went into just a little bit then, but I wanted to explore more of Berklee. It was the right place for me to be at that time.
JSR: So, you’ve got this new album out, Almadraba. First of all, is there any particular meaning to the word or name?
Oscar Peñas: Well, I wouldn’t be first to say that. It is ancient from the Phoenicians who used a patient fishing technique that is taking place every year in the coast of Cadiz where the waters from the Mediterranean and the Atlantic mix, and that fishing technique is a sustainable one because the fishermen there set some elaborate nets where the bluefin tuna travels through from the all waters of the North Sea, to the warm waters where they go to spawn.
So, a fisherman, when these fish do not pass on, they only caught the big fish, and they leave free the small tunas. I would call that sustainable.
JSR: The music, as I understand it, you consider a suite. The album really is a whole project, right? How does this connect with this kind of fishing concept you just talked about?
Oscar Peñas: That’s correct. I think it’s like that we musicians have to find some kind of ideas to write about, at least this is the way I work. It’s not that I see it and the inspiration comes. I was not familiar with that tradition, then my dad took a trip and saw that firsthand and sent me some pictures and I was impressed. So I thought, well, that could be a main theme to put kind of a soundtrack to those images or themes, which is like 12 different songs or movements of a suite. It’s named after the different phases of the fishing technique.
JSR: Right. I noticed the next song I have up, the fourth one (we’ve played the first three already), is Habanera de la Almadraba. So, is that the next stage?
Oscar Peñas: Well, that’s not really a stage. Habanera is like a genre that comes from Havana.
JSR: I see.
Oscar Peñas: But the other ones, they’re like a different phase of the fishing technique. The songs you already played are when they set up these elaborate nets where the fishes go through.
JSR: So, another fascinating thing to me is you’ve really put together quite the group – Ron Carter, who I’m pleased to see and I think is fairly old and is still performing quite well. And you’ve got some other great jazz players with you. Are these people you’ve been playing with for a while? Or how did you put this group together?
Oscar Peñas: This is the most ambitious project that I have embarked upon because I used to do what musicians call a lead sheet song, like projects that they don’t have much arrangement to them, just like a lead sheet that has a melody and chord symbols, and they don’t require much rehearsal.
JSR: So more like with a lot of improv then in between.
Oscar Peñas: Exactly. There’s more like a true composed kind of scene on this album. So, Ron Carter I met through some common acquaintances and we liked each other, I talked to him about this project, and he told me that he wanted to be on it and that’s what set it up.
And then I’ve been playing with Richie Barshay for quite a long time since I moved to New York. He is the drummer on the album that is subtle and perfect for the music and in general. Marta [Sanchez], we’ve briefly played with her before. We did a gig in Baltimore with the Harlem Quartet, I hadn’t played with them before, but I needed a chamber music group that had some experience with jazz and crossover music because there’s many excellent string quartets all over the world, but there are not so many that feed into the jazz kind of crossover.
JSR: Right. So, I noticed when I was doing a little research that there were a couple of live YouTubes of performances from this album before it came out. So how long have you been working on this album?
Oscar Peñas: We recorded the album in 2018 and then we premiered it at Brooklyn Academy of Music in October, so that didn’t allow us enough time to put it out.
JSR: I see. So, it was on ice for a while and probably COVID didn’t help either.
Oscar Peñas: Exactly. That didn’t help either. But anyway, we released it after the fact. It could have been a nice album release because we had four days in a row at a great place and then we also played at the City College the following January. But anyway, it didn’t work out that way. So, we are releasing it now.
JSR: Hopefully you can bring it to Madison one of these days. Well, we’re going to wrap up the interview and play some more of your music, but I wanted to give you (like I do with all of my guests) one last chance, if there’s anything you want to tell our audience further that I haven’t asked you about your music, about yourself.
Oscar Peñas: Well, I don’t know. I wasn’t prepared for that (question.) I hope they enjoy the music. It is available on CD and LP. We only burn our LP long play. It is also available on all the other well-known platforms like iTunes and all that. So, if they like what they hear they’re welcome to support it.
JSR: Of course, and we encourage that. My show is world music, and we want to support musicians from all over the world. And one way, of course, to do that is for people to go buy tickets to their shows and purchase their music.
So with that, thank you very much, Oscar Peñas. I’m glad you took the time. It was a pleasure to talk to you and let’s get back to your album.
Oscar Peñas: Thanks so much. Take care.
Check out a live performance of Almadraba by clicking here.
More Posts for Show: Hejira