For legendary guitarist Pepe Romero learning to play guitar came as natural to him as learning to walk. In a recent interview with him on the road en route from Texas to a performance in Baltimore, the 71-year-old Romero said, “My father was a fantastic guitarist and composer. He made the guitar available to me and my two brothers and we all learned to play. It was just meant to be. It was our destiny, this musical path I’m on today.”
Indeed, Pepe Romero’s father was classical and Flamenco guitarist legend Celedonio Romero (1913-1996), who began playing guitar at the age of five, made sure his own sons had the guitar near as it always was to him. He attended the Conservatory of Málaga in Spain and the Madrid Royal Conservatory where he was taught by Spanish classical music composer Joaquin Turina. He made his concert debut in Spain in 1935. However, when the Franco government refused to allow Romero to travel abroad, he secretly acquired an American visa and, in 1957, immigrated to Southern California with his wife, Angelita, a singer and actress; and his three sons, Celin, Pepe, and Angel. They settled in the San Diego area where Celedonio began taking guitar students. When he died at 83, he had written over 100 compositions for the guitar, including 12 concertos. He was made a Caballero del Santo Sepulcro or Knight of the Holy Sepulchre by Pope John Paul 11 and inducted into the Orden de la Catolica by King Juan Carlos I in his homeland.
For Pepe Romero and his brothers, being born into a family of artists and especially with a father who was an internationally famous guitarist, the question came up, was he pressured by his parents to play guitar? “No,” He stated emphatically. “They always wanted us to pursue our dreams. But, I started playing guitar when I was three years old, though I was never pressured by my parents to be a musician. My father was a very gentle man. It was his wish for us to play guitar, but he never forced us. It had to be out of love for the music.” Then Romero said, “We – my brothers and I – all fell in love with the guitar. This music is the language of romance. So, our origins are founded in falling in love with the guitar and the music we learned from our father.” He said, “We were formed by the music. It is still with us today. It comforts us and it haunts us. It has from the beginning. Today it has only become more so; it has only intensified.” He said. “The deeper you get into it, the more you fall in love with it. Music is a passion for us.”
In 1960, after years of study with their father as their teacher, Pepe, Celin, and Angel, joined their father, Celedonio, on stage for the first time and the Romeros, a stunningly beautiful guitar quartet, were born.
Today, according to Pepe Romero, this passion for music comes as a driving force and a desire not only to commune with the music in the act of creation but also to share it with others through recording and especially performing.
“That which you feel passionate about, you must share with the world.” Pepe said with enthusiasm. “This love and desire is what allows us to endure the life of a cultured musician. It’s what causes me today to drive three hours to an airport in Texas only to fly east to Baltimore where a blizzard awaits.” He marveled. “But, tomorrow night, I will be in a concert hall bringing this music to an audience. It’s a fulfillment of my own destiny. And because of my love for the music and the audience, I have the energy for it.”
What of the audience and his connection to them? The kind of performance Pepe Romero and his family bring to the concert stage is energized and intimate. “The audiences are wonderful. The connection I feel with them is such happiness. Even before a single note is played, I feel their energy and this holy bond between us. There is always a mutual recognition of that.” he explained.
This image of a traveling musician going to such lengths to bring the magic and beauty of music against such odds captures something of the spirit of a gentle warrior. His family story is rooted in this breaking through obstacles. This is illustrated by his father secretly escaping Spain with his family and crossing the ocean in opposition to government restrictions, in order to bring the freedom of music to the world. This same determination lives today embodied by Pepe’s legacy of performance over the course of six decades.
“Yes!” Pepe laughed. “We are artists who are trying to bring a balance for good in a world that is filled with strife today!” He said. “One of my new compositions is called “En El Sacromonte, which is near where we have a home. The hills there known as the ‘sacred mountains’ across from the Alhambra.”
The historical location is next Albaicin, an old Arabic quarter of Granada. It was once populated by gypsies. The earth there was soft enough with clay and pebbles to allow caves to form. It became known as a place of great commerce and peace.
Pepe continued,”The song is to the spirit of the Queen of the Sacromonte, the everlasting spirit of romance. Through a kind of dance in song, it brings back a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims all lived together in peace. It’s an education for the world today, to learn this kind of world once existed.”
At 2:00 PM on April 12th, Pepe Romero, will be joining his family in an encore homecoming reunion celebrating 56 years since the Romeros first took the stage. The performance will be at Poway Center for Performing Arts. It will include a rare performance of the Romero Guitar Quartet which will include Pepe’s older brother, Celin, a professor of music and guitar at UC San Diego. Rounding out the quartet will be Pepe’s nephews, Celino and Lito. “It will be a Fiesta, a celebration of music and of Spain!” Pepe emphasized. “It will be a big and joyous event!”
As our conversation concluded it seemed there was a moment of absolute clarity between us even with the distance and electrical miles of the telephone. “You know, I believe it is true,” Pepe said with a sense of somewhat hurried passion, “I’m being called to my flight now, but I want to say, musicians are called to be warriors of peace,” he said…”Now I must go.”
Before he hung up the phone I called out, “Fight the good fight of music, love and peace, Pepe!” He humbly said, “I will try!” He then left the crowded Texas airport to fly eastward where a blizzard, a concert hall and an audience awaits.
The Romeros 55th Anniversary Tour, Sunday, April 12, Poway Center for the Performing Arts, 15498 Espola Rd., Poway, 2pm.