Father’s Day may be two months away, but for Los Romeros, the “First Family of Guitar”, a much more meaningful tribute and love letter will be written this Sunday. “This was a very impromptu idea of Pepe and me,” says Celin Romero, the 76-year-old guitar virtuoso and present patriarch of the family. “We were talking, ‘It would be nice to go and celebrate the 100th [birth] anniversary of [our] father. What do we do for Papa? Let’s go to Santa Barbara and give a concert!’”
While musical talent is frequently transmitted from parent to child, and siblings often share marked abilities, Los Romeros are unique for the specificity and extent of that transmission. Not only Celin and his two brothers, Pepe and Angel, but two of their sons, Celino and Lito, have all dedicated their lives to la guitarre, as instructed by their beloved father and grandfather, Celedonio Romero (1913-1996). [A third son, Pepe Jr., another excellent guitarist, has chosen the professional path of luthier (guitar maker) rather than public performer.] Since their U.S. debut in 1958—at the Lobero Theatre—Los Romeros, individually and in ensemble, have made monumental contributions to the evolution of guitar in the classical repertoire. They have performed with the great orchestras around the world, and have stimulated prominent composers like Joaquìn Rodrigo, Federico Moreno Torroba and Morton Gould to write and arrange for guitar quartet, a genre the Romeros virtually invented.
Celedonio Romero (1913 – 1996), brilliant Spanish guitarist, composer and poet, was born in Málaga, Spain, and began performing professionally at age 22. Coming of age during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, Celedonio’s career was actively hindered. “When we grew up,” Celin told me by phone this week, “my father never joined the philosophy, never was a person of the party—so he was blacklisted. So they made his life as a musician pretty miserable.” International travel was forbidden, and his career was deprived of the exposure it so badly needed. Rather than giving way to despair, for two decades the elder persisted, heeding a higher calling and training his sons, for love of the music and devotion to his art. “And my father did play the guitar faithfully every day, like he was going to go and play a concert next day.” Then in 1957, the Romero family escaped, under the pretext of visiting a sick relative in Portugal. They were shuttled quickly through Lisbon, New York, Los Angeles, and finally Santa Barbara. New possibilities sparkled. “What a magnificent impression it was for us to see Santa Barbara” Romero said.
Celin, Pepe, Celino and Lito Romero comprise the present configuration of the Romero Quartet, nicely split between second and third generations. So what can we expect to hear on Sunday afternoon from these virtuosi, who play, as Celedonio used to say, “as one guitar with 24 strings”?
“We would like to do possibly some of the things we did in the first concert. I think it’s going to be a lot of Spanish music. That is something that in later years I am more and more enjoying.” Celin spoke to me of the simple beauty of Andalucía that soaked deeply into the souls of the Romero boys a half-century ago. “You still could be in Granada, or in Seville, and it did remind you what [the composers] Albéniz, or Granados—the Spain that they saw. Seville—you cannot imagine the beauty of that city. It was peaceful, full of flowers, orange trees. What we saw, we feel in the music. And it’s good for us to explore that, and show to the new generation of guitar players, because I feel that is an important part of the repertoire. This is good for us. We were there. We lived it. So let’s explore that, to see if we can transmit through our music what we saw.”
If present weather is any indication, Santa Barbara will be opening its arms Sunday in sunshine and flowers, a fine Andalucían semblance for the occasion. But the real warmth, Celin reminded me, is in a homecoming dedicated to family, friends and music.
“I don’t know how he did it, but I think my father did teach us how to be fathers,” Celin told me in English that still bears the fractures of a second language, “and we have been able to do the closeness we had with him to the end. So far my children are giving it to me.”
“The guitar has given us so much, with the family, with the friends. It is an incredible experience to have lived all these years, you know? And always with this beautiful music, and the opportunity to meet and to be with people that feel the same way.”
The Lobero Theatre presents “The Romeros Return”, Sunday April 14 at 3pm. A preconcert talk by Prof. Walter Aaron Clark, founder/director of UC Riverside’s Center for Iberian and Latin American Music will begin at 2pm. For tickets and more information, call 963-0761 or visit Lobero.com.