Release Date: February 26, 2022
A musical spark can come from many sources—a special person, a certain poem, a particular place. On the album Almadraba, the Catalonian guitarist and composer Oscar Peñas draws inspiration from a fishing tradition that has been part of Andalucian culture for thousands of years. Filled with Iberian, Classical, and flamenco flavors, and with the sensitive support of keyboards, percussion, and strings, Peñas’s twelve-track suite is a deeply evocative celebration of man and nature in struggle and harmony.
“Almadraba“ is an Arabic name,” Peñas explains. “It’s a sustainable fishing method first practiced by the Phoenicians and brought to Andalusian Spain about 2000 years ago. It’s still in practice today in fact on the coast of Cadiz. Schools of bluefin tuna travel from the North Sea to the warmer waters of the Mediterranean to spawn. On the first full moon in May the fishermen there set up this labyrinth of nets to force the fish into a center area and then pull them out, very dramatically, and take only the biggest ones. The rest are returned to the sea.”
Dramatically? That’s an understatement. This is no Sunday outing with a fishing pole and line. One must witness the dangerous, sea-soaked, slippery scene to grasp the battle that is the almadraba—the sheer physicality of it all, as fishermen use ropes and big metal hooks, hands, and muscle, to lift the largest of the tuna up off a bed of entangled nets, over the wooden gunwales and onto the boat’s broad decks. The fish they choose are two to three feet longer than a man is tall, and weigh twice as much. The rope-and-pulley system used today—hanging from masts planted firmly into the boat’s hull—is the same as what’s been in play for centuries. The fish’s final, fitful attempts at freedom have snapped many a pulley, maiming—or taking the life of—many fishermen. The red-tinted seafoam and dark blue-green waters swirl together: a colorful backdrop to a scene that caught Peñas’s eye. Almadraba is the fifth album by the 48-year old artist whose gem-like guitar-playing remains a study in restraint and depth, and whose training began with classical studies and later progressed to jazz. The album also stands as a creative breakthrough, realizing years of artistic progress and promise. The music on it sparkles softly, speaking with a delicate lyricism that both stills the soul and resonates with the feel of ageless melodies. All that needed to happen was for someone to hear and record them. Now Peñas has done that.
Almadraba—like Peñas’s critically acclaimed albums before it (2003’s Astronautus, 2005’s The Return of Astronautus, 2011’s From Now On, and 2014’s Music of Departures and Returns—benefits from a carefully selected group of improvising musicians, including master bassist Ron Carter. Also featured on Almadraba are fellow Spaniard, keyboardist Marta Sanchez; bassist Pablo Aslan; percussionist and world-rhythm expert Richie Barshay; and The Harlem Quartet, the Grammy-winning string foursome comprised of violinists Ilmar Gavilan and Melissa White, violist Jaime Amador, and cellist Jody Redhage-Ferber.
That Peñas continues to recruit talent of this caliber to his recording projects, utilizing their musicality and nuance to the degree that he does on Almadraba, speaks highly of his skill as a composer. The dozen pieces on the album reveal an emotional range that deepens in reach and meaning after each listening, telling the story of the almadraberos—“the brave fishermen who risk their lives to catch the tuna,” says Peñas, who adds that “the movements of the suite have been named after the different phases of this tradition,” as he explains. “It opens with ‘Traveling Through Water’—the most song-oriented part of the suite. If it had lyrics I think it could be a pop song, and next, there’s ‘Calamento’: those are the nets they set up in a labyrinth-like pattern.” Two tunes follow capturing the beauty of the swift, sea-bound journey of the fishermen to the fish: ‘Almadraba’s Waltz’, very lively and hopeful, and ‘Habanera de la Almadraba’, which flows with the motion of the sea, waves of tension and release.
“Then there’s ‘La Levantá‘, the most vigorous part of the suite, when the biggest fish are pulled up by hand, the fish thrashing their tails in despair. The smaller ones are released—‘La Bajá‘—which to me has a dreamy, Debussy-like feel, although any similarity was not intentional. On land, the big tunas are filleted for auction: ‘El Ronqueo’ is meant to evoke the sound of the knives on the fish bones. This tune, and the closing piece of the suite, ‘Bulería de la Almadraba’, are the most Spanish-flaired in terms of tempo, energy, cadences, and rhythm—a tribute to the place where this all takes place in southern Spain.”The suite closes with the deceptively mood-painting of the guitar-and-bass duet ‘Ballad of the Fishermen’. The bonus tracks of the digital version of the album offer the harmonies and Phrygian cadences of ‘South’ (so we know where we are, in Andalucia) and ‘Oh, Maguro’, light-hearted in spirit, inspired in part by the irony that many of the tuna caught in Spain will fetch a high price and end up in sushi restaurants in Japan.
For Peñas, Almadraba serves as a point of musical arrival and personal satisfaction. “This work is also very close to me because I feel I finally blended the two musical worlds I have been exploring most of my life—worlds that are at times harmonious and at times antagonistic: classical music and jazz. Not just that either—on this album, I filtered both genres through the cadences and rhythms of my native Spain—and other flavors very dear to me, like the habanera.” In fact, there’s a kaleidoscope of musical ideas swirling through Almadraba—Iberian and Afro-Cuban, Classical and bebop—but it takes a sharp ear to catch the distinct threads, but that defeats the purpose. True to Peñas’s word, the music flows effortlessly and naturally. Yet one need only consider a few standout moments—the hushed focus of Peñas’s guitar line on the album opener; the cascading, back-and-forth of guitar and string quartet on the final track—to realize how much is truly happening, and why he rightfully feels a sense of pride in what he achieved.
From the fishermen of Cadiz, who have been casting their nets into the Mediterranean for generations, came the inspiration. On Almadraba, Peñas has created music that should endure as long. — Ashley Kahn, May 20, 2021
ABOUT ASHLEY KAHN
Ashley Kahn is an author, educator, music journalist, and concert producer. A professor of music history and criticism at NYU who lectures at other institutions as well, his books include A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece. Kahn’s writing has generated two Grammy nominations, three ASCAP/Deems Taylor Awards and two Book of the Year distinctions from the Jazz Journalists Association.
Oscar Peñas “Almadraba” (2022)
Digital and LP Only
Release Date: Feb 26, 2022.
All music written and arranged by Oscar Peñas (Musikoz, ASCAP)
Traveling Through Water 4:54
Almadraba’s Waltz 3:12
Habanera de La Almadraba 4:51
La Levantá 4:53
La Bajá 4:06
El Ronqueo 3:09
Bulería De La Almadraba 3:02
Ballad Of The Fishermen 2:21
Bonus Tracks For Digital Release Only
Oh, Maguro 4:07
Oscar Peñas, guitars
Marta Sanchez, piano, and fender rhodes (Side A #2)
Ron Carter, bass (Side A #1,#2,#4, Side B #6, bonus tracks)
Pablo Aslan, bass (Side A #3, Side B all tracks except #6)
Richie Barshay, drums
Ilmar Gavilan, 1st violin
Melissa White, 2nd violin
Jaime Amador, viola
Jody Redhage-Ferber, cello
Recorded at Sear Sound on May 21, 2018
Recorded, mixed & mastered by Jeremy Loucas at Sear Sound, NYC, NY
Produced by Jason Olaine
Executive Producer, Cover Photo & Jacket Design, Zulema Mejias
Liner Notes by Ashley Kahn
Oscar Peñas Website: https://oscarpenas.com/
Liner Notes and Credits published with the permission of Oscar Peñas