San Diego Magazine

The Romance of Pepe Romero

It's only a tiny patio garden behind his Del Mar townhouse, but as Pepe Romero apeaks lovingly about his music, the space becomes a fantastic universe of colors, forms, and possibilities. Romero has this effect on people.

"When you play music," says the renowned classical and flamenco guitarist as a blue sky deepens, green leaves grow greener and leaf shadows dance on the garden wall, "if you truly surrender your ego and your self, you lose the awareness of your own body, and your body becomes the body of the sound. You perceive your own person as being inside the tone, inside the sound, and of course the audience is also inside the tone, so you are really one, and it's very difficult for me to know where I end and the public begins. I feel a real togetherness and a real oneness, bonded by the tone, by the actual physical vibration of the sound. And this is a wonderful experience. It's very difficult to explain."

On a quiet afternoon, we are sitting at a table in Romero's garden. He has lived in the U.S. since 1957, when his family fled Franco's fascist Spain, but he retains a charming accent that includes the R's rolled as delicately as the fine Cuban cigars he favors.

Romero is home from his world travels. Soon, he'll tour Europe again and record a new CD in Amsterdam, the latest in a chain of more than 50 recordings. The second son of guitarist Celedonio Romero, Pepe, who turns 50 next month, is part of a family of musical masters who all ended up in Del Mar. Brothers Celin and Angel are also guitar virtuosos, Pepe Romero's youngest child Pepe, Jr., 16, plays too, and Romero says his grandson, not even a year old, is already showing signs of great musical potential.

"Whenever I pick up the guitar he goes crazy, so I think there's a good chance he will play," Romero says.

Although all four Romero men are prominent guitarists, Pepe Romero is perhaps best known. His music weeps and bleeds with raw emotions of an intensity few musicians attain, as if his heart and soul are vibrating out through the strings to directly alter your own emotions. Notes waver achingly, subtle surges in tempo pick up your pulse and Romero renders heartbreaking melodies as clear as fine crystal.

His talents are in demand world-wide and he has traveled to many countries, but Romero remains devoted to Del Mar, although he also has a home in his native Málaga, Spain.

"The weather, the feeling of relaxation, the ocean, everything, this area is paradise," he says. His brother Celin "discovered" this place for the family.

"We were playing with the San Diego Symphony, the premiere of a concerto written for us and the symphony, and on the way back home - we were living in Los Angeles - Celin just exited off the freeway in Del Mar Heights and fell in love with the area. He saw a house for sale and bought it that day. I met him that evening in Los Angeles, where Celin and I used to have adjoining backyards, to the next day I came with him and I looked around and I bought another house, then my father and Angel followed shortly and we have been enjoying the area ever since."

The San Diego area also has one of his favorite places to record - not a studio, but Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside.

"The sound of the mission is one of the best in the world!" says Romero, whose recording philosophy is the exact opposite of contemporary methods that use electronics to create the illusion of space and depth. Instead of going to a neutral, sound-dampened studio where engineers fine tune the sound after recording, Romero goes in search of rooms with the proper ambiance, then records live on location with a microphone that captures the full sound of the room.

"Some years ago we were thinking of recording in San Diego and Monsignor Spain, who was pastor at the Catholic church in Solana Beach, took us to all the different churches in the county, and I just absolutely fell in love with the sound of the old mission.

"The only problem is the traffic, it isn't sound proof to the outside. So when record we have to do it very late at night, which is actually kind of fun. The last time was a recital program of four guitars with my father, brother Celin and my nephew."

And, Romero says, he can easily tell the difference between such authentic atmosphere and the kind that's added with technology.

"It's the difference between drinking real orange juice freshly squeezed right out of an orange, or reconstituted with all the vitamins added and the sugar added and the color added. Because in making a recording, it's not just notes. It's feelings. It's the feeling the player feels at the moment he's doing it, and unless he can hear the vibrations of the sound, and unless he can feel those vibrations, the music is not going to have the same feeling."

Obviously feelings are key to Romero's art, and for February it seemed fitting to ask about his favorite romantic music.

"If you want guitar music and you want mine, I would say the most romantic are the collections of Spanish romantic composers, and also the collection of Latin American music, a recording called 'La Paloma'.

"But great romantic recordings are also Rubinstein's performance of Chopin's nocturnes, 'The Four Last Songs' by Strauss, and a recording of Jessye Norman."

Romero is sort of a curator of classical music, working with musicologists to discover long forgotten romantic music from the early 1800s, then recording it for the first time ever.

"What happened to the guitar literature after the early part of the romantic period, the guitar was tremendously popular and great compositions were written for it, then with the birth of the piano and the creation of the big symphony orchestra, the piano replaced the guitar as the home instrument and a lot of those compositions were fogotten."

American and European musicologists have helped Romero revive music by composers such as Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, Francesco Molino, Fernando Carulli and Luigi Boccherini, and contemporary composers including Joaquin Rodrigo, Paul Chihara and Lorenzo Palomo have written pieces especially for him.

Talking with Romero, you sense he would be right at home in the past, a suspicion confirmed when he is asked to name his favorite recordings of all time. He steps inside to spin an old vinyl disc - flamenco from the '20s or '30s - on a vintage hand-cranked player.

"I would prefer old, old records made completely acoustically (as opposed to digitally)," he explains. "I would prefer horses rather than cars, and boats rather than airplanes. I think that feeling for a more peaceful life, a nostalgia for peacefulness that goes with a less so-called technological improvement, is what has driven me into playing classical guitar."

- Dirk Sutro


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