The Amazing Saga of Los Romeros: Walter Aaron Clark On Writing His Biography of the ‘Royal Family of the Spanish Guitar’
Short-lived quintet, c. 2011 Top row: Pepe (left) and Celin (right) Middle row: Angel (left) and Celino (right) Front row: Lito
BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
Walter Aaron Clark’s beautifully written, meticulously researched new biography of Los Romeros—better known these days as the Romero Guitar Quartet—takes its name from the first album the original group recorded back in 1963: Los Romeros: Royal Family of the Spanish Guitar. That was six years after the Romero family—Celedonio and Angelita and their three children, Celin, Pepe, and Angel—escaped from the fascist Spain of Generalissimo Francisco Franco and settled in sunny southern California, where the “kids”—now in their 70s (Pepe and Angel) and early 80s (Celin)—still reside, still in close proximity, along with their children and grandchildren; Californians all, but still Spanish in their souls.
Clark is the first writer to seriously tackle the Romeros’ fascinating and inspiring saga: The family’s humble origins in southern Spain, including how the guitar became all-consuming for Celedonio, a passion he later passed to his young sons; the early struggles that bonded the close-knit family together; their risky emigration to the USA; the challenge of adjusting to American life (and schools); and how Celedonio, Celin, Pepe, and Angel evolved into Los Romeros, who, following in the footsteps of the enormously popular Andrés Segovia, became de facto ambassadors for the Spanish guitar in the United States and abroad—playing for presidents and pontiffs—a popular concert attraction, recording artists, even TV stars.
But Clark’s book goes beyond being just an impressively detailed chronological history of the group and “the Romero family’s singular devotion to and particular genius for making music.” Nearly half of the book is devoted to incisive profiles of the family, starting with Celedonio and Angelita (“The Poet and His Muse”), then Celin (“The Romantic”), Pepe (“The Philosopher”), and Angel (“The Proteus”). There are sections on “The Romero Technique” and “The Romero Repertoire,” and then it’s back to history for an unflinching look at the strife that led to Angel’s departure from the group in 1990, and concluding with an optimistic sendoff about “The Next Generations”—Celin’s son, Celino, and Angel’s son, Lito, are current members of the quartet (with Pepe and Celin), while Pepe’s son, also named Pepe, is a top-flight maker of classical guitars and ukuleles. The book’s valuable appendices include a chronology, a Romero family genealogy, a list of albums, a glossary of names and terms, and, of course, notes and sources.
Clark is not exactly an impartial outside observer when it comes to the Romeros. He has known the family since the 1970s, studied guitar with both Pepe and Celin, and has remained friends with them through the years, even as his path as a guitarist and then a musicologist and teacher has taken him from southern California to Germany to Kansas and then back to California—he is currently a Distinguished Professor of Musicology at the University of California, Riverside (east of Los Angeles), and the founder/director of that school’s Center for Iberian and Latin American Music. Along the way he wrote three well-received Oxford biographies of legendary Spanish composers: Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic; Enrique Granados: Poet of the Piano; and, with co-author William Craig Krause, Federico Moreno Torroba: A Musical Life in Three Acts. So it was not surprising that the Romeros actually approached Clark about writing their story. To their credit, however, they promised him complete freedom and editorial control over the manuscript (as well as full access to their extensive archives). Though Clark is clearly fond and admiring of his subjects, this is no whitewashed puff piece; it is honest about their foibles and occasional missteps. But ultimately it is about the triumph of a truly remarkable family and the enduring power of Spanish music.
I caught with Clark by phone in early August to talk about the book.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: Can you talk a little bit about how the book came about—why it was greenlighted by the family, and what you had to do to juggle researching, interviewing people, going through their massive archives, and then trying to remain somewhat objective? I think you did a great job of sounding objective.
WALTER AARON CLARK: Well, thank you. That was the hard part.I had always written about dead people before. [Laughs]
CG: I was going to ask you about how that changes the equation.
CLARK: I’ll give you an example. An interesting thing about Isaac Albéniz is that he tended to mythologize his early career. He said things that simply weren’t true. He would tell one journalist one thing and another journalist another. So as someone trying to write a biography, I had to be extra-careful to corroborate any revisions. For instance, Albéniz claimed that he stowed away on a steamer from Spain to Cuba. It took me several months to find the necessary documentation in maritime museums and government archives, but I finally put the pieces together: No, he didn’t stow away on a steamer, he went there with his father who had been transferred to Cuba as an employee of the [Spanish] government. He also claimed he studied with Liszt, but my research showed that, no, he didn’t study with Liszt. But all previous authors, out of respect to Albéniz, would just repeat these stories or some version of them, without ever bothering to check them with original documentation—primary sources.
The beauty part of it is that he was dead. [Laughs] So if I had to insinuate that he was a liar, that was OK, because he wasn’t going to file a lawsuit against me. Now, you do have to worry a little bit about grandchildren, and I was concerned that maybe the family would be angry with me. But the granddaughter, who had helped me with my research at the Albéniz house and going through his library, said, “Thank you for telling the truth about my grandfather.” However, I should note that the book was banned from an Albéniz museum in the town where he was born, in northern Catalonia. [Laughs]
But this is something a lot of people did in the Romantic period: They embellished their life stories. And that’s something Celedonio did, too.
CG: Yes, you’re very frank about that in book, about him stretching the truth quite a bit.
CLARK: Frank, but diplomatic. He made up stuff, too. He would tell a journalist he was five years younger than he was, that he got a doctorate in music from the Royal Conservatory in Madrid, and so on.
CG: Not to mention advertising concerts as benefits for charity and then scrambling to get the charity to underwrite it!
CLARK: That was classic, and the family actually told me that one! And Celin rigging the meter in their apartment building so it would show they used almost no electricity. This is what they did to survive. But my point is, it’s easier to write something that could be looked at as unflattering about people after they’re dead.
I did have the advantage of having known the Romeros for over 40 years; we’re close friends and I respect and revere them. At first, I was reluctant to write this book. I was finishing up work on Torroba, and they were familiar with my work on Spanish composers, and they asked if I would write a book about their family. But I thought, “I’m too close to them; I won’t be able to write with sufficient objectivity.” But they said, “We don’t need to look at your manuscript or proofs. Say what you need to say; we trust you.”
Then they showed me their family archive, which was huge and kept all in one place. When I started going through some of the material I realized, “This is an incredible story. I didn’t know any of this!”
CG: Was it organized? You mention hotel receipts, business cards, postcards. . . .
CLARK:Tickets, letters, newspaper clippings, reviews, diaries. . . . They saved everything, which was great! Particularly the mother [Angelita]. It was somewhat organized, but I had to reorganize it for my own purposes. Most of it was in a few dozen bankers’ boxes. It took me two years just to go through all that before I could write a word. But what an incredible goldmine! Later, I persuaded them to give it to UCR [University of California, Riverside] Special Collections so it will always be there for others to consult. There are a lot of things in it that have real historical value. A couple of my graduate students organized and catalogued the archive, which can be accessed at oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c8057mh2.
After I looked at all the materials in the archive I realized this is an amazing story I’d like to tell, and I could do so without any interference from the family. And there was no interference. They didn’t try to control anything. So when I mentioned that Celedonio fibbed about this or that, it was fine. I did let them read the manuscript to make sure I got the facts right, and I wanted them to make sure I got my facts straight.
CG: When you were looking through the materials, how would you do that? Would you go down from Riverside and spend an afternoon at their house, or whatever?
CLARK: The main residence, where Pepe and Celin live, is in Del Mar [on the coast half an hour north of San Diego]. But a few miles away they also had a condominium where Pepe would record or practice or guests could stay—and the family archive was kept there. So they gave me a key and said, “Come and go as you please.” And I would go down every Friday and spend the whole day going through and arranging materials. I came up with my own system so I could find things whenever I needed to. Friday was Romero Day, and I went through it all, systematically examining every scrap of paper, every souvenir, every postcard in that archive. I also did a lot of research in Spain.
Even though I had known them for many years, I knew so little about them—where they were from, what their lives in Spain were like; I had no idea. And what they survived, what they overcame, is pretty amazing.
CG: Nearly all of the story was new to me, but it was particularly fascinating reading about being in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and then escaping to America in the late ’50s.
CLARK: It’s very hard for us today to comprehend the daily danger in which they lived. Celin was born during a bombardment; there were so many random, terrible things that went on for years. Celedonio was originally drafted into the Loyalist [anti-fascist] army and then, after [Franco’s] Nationalists conquered Málaga in early 1937, he was drafted into their army, and potentially could have been sent to the front to fight against his own brothers.
CG: Your previous books were very heavily musicological, but this one really doesn’t require much, if any, musical knowledge to enjoy it.
CLARK: I was writing this book for a wider audience than my previous books, which were strictly academic. This one still has hundreds of footnotes, but I wanted to reach not just musicians, but also music lovers who go to Romero concerts and want to know more about them. When I approached the University of Illinois Press and the editor of its Music in American Life series, they latched onto it immediately. They did a phenomenal job.
CG: When I saw the Romeros play at the La Guitarra California festival a couple of years ago, I was struck by the fact that while at most guitar festivals probably 80 percent or more of the crowd is made up of guitarists, at that event I’m sure half were just fans of the Romeros and not necessarily musicians.
CLARK: I felt a book about the Romeros should reflect the kind of career the Romeros have had. At one point I compare them to Liberace.
CG: Yeah, that was harsh!
CLARK: [Laughs] I’m actually a big fan of Liberace. I remember Liberace playing Chopin and other classical composers on network TV. He demystified classical music; he de-elitized it and made it accessible to millions of people. The Romeros also made a lot of American TV appearances back then, on The Ed Sullivan Show, on The Tonight Show. Believe it or not, they were even on Hootenanny [a TV variety show in 1963–64], playing Telemann, and people loved it! They brought classical guitar into millions of homes that probably wouldn’t otherwise have had any exposure to it. My point is, the Romeros were always conscious of being entertainers. They wanted people to enjoy their concerts, so they didn’t play Henze; they don’t play avant-garde music or anything atonal. There are plenty of other people who will do that, but they don’t. And if they play Recuerdos for the ten millionth time, they still bring conviction and enthusiasm to it as if they’re playing it for the first time.
So I thought a book about the Romeros should reflect their approach. They were and are capable of very sophisticated and even experimental music-making, but at the same time they’re not ashamed to entertain.
CG: I can’t imagine going to a Romeros concert and hearing Britten’s Nocturnal After John Dowland.
CLARK: No, never! [Laughs]
CG: At one point, though, you mention that their programming resembled Segovia’s in a way, yet I think of him as somebody who took a lot of chances and paved the way to open up the public’s perceptions of what “classical guitar” was all about. Not to the extent that Julian Bream did later, but he played a lot of fairly adventurous pieces.
CLARK: That’s true. But it’s also true that Segovia rejected some pieces for being too modern.
One of the things I learned from newspaper clippings in the archive is that Celedonio was following Segovia’s career. And I think in many respects he looked at Segovia and said, “That’s what I want to do.” Segovia was showing them how to do it: You give the public a little Albéniz, a little Bach, some de Visée, some Milán. The big difference between the two of them—and this is something the son of Torroba told me—is that Segovia didn’t dare play flamenco in public, even though he was from Linares, deep in the south, and he knew flamenco, and evidently could play it well. But he didn’t do it because there was such class prejudice in Spain at that time and flamenco was considered a low-class form of entertainment. Segovia was trying to present the guitar as a very respectable classical instrument, so he didn’t play malagueñas and fandangos, though he could have.
What the Romeros did that was innovative is they would come out and play classical repertoire and then launch into some flamenco, and the crowd would go wild. Celedonio had even done that in Spain—playing Bach and malagueñas in the same program—and it didn’t seem to ruffle any feathers. But when they came to the United States, it was the perfect formula—because people were going to hear Segovia’s strictly classical recitals, and then hearing Carlos Montoya and Sabicas playing flamenco, which had become popular here. But the Romeros played both. One review after another said, “The Romeros made the guitar fun.” They made it enjoyable, and without losing their dignity, without losing their seriousness of purpose. They found that happy medium. The Romeros aren’t going to satisfy the people who, understandably, want to hear [Henze’s] Royal Winter Music or La espiral eterna by Leo Brouwer, but they can get that elsewhere. People know what they’re getting with the Romeros, and it still attracts audiences.
A point I didn’t really emphasize in the book is that, in general, audiences are declining for classical guitar, so the Romeros are out there holding up the statistics in a way, keeping the audiences coming who aren’t guitar specialists, don’t know the standard repertoire, may not know much about music history, but they enjoy this. And then they will be more likely to go to another classical-guitar concert that might be more experimental, because now they’re on-board. So the Romeros perform a function in that way.
CG: There seem to be more festivals and competitions in more places than ever before and maybe more strong guitarists than ever before. But there aren’t superstars like Segovia and Bream and Williams.
CLARK: The 1960s were kind of a golden age because you had Segovia, who blazed the trail for the others, and then he anointed Christopher Parkening and John Williams—for good reason—and Julian Bream. These were phenomenal artists!
I was at the Guitar Foundation of America annual convention in Denver a couple of years ago and there were so many incredible players. I kept thinking, “If this person had been born 70 years ago, they would have given Segovia, Bream, Parkening, and Williams a run for their money.” Technically and musically they are so advanced. But the problem now is a lot of the oxygen has been taken out of the room. There are so many super-accomplished young players, it’s hard.
The classical guitar came of age at a time when music was undergoing a fundamental transformation toward atonality and ametricality, so when people write new music for the guitar they feel an obligation to turn away from the Spanish style and to write something that’s more musically and intellectually adventuresome. But the truth is, that’s not what a lot of audiences want to hear. The vast majority of non-guitarist audiences actually do want to hear Leyenda and Recuerdos.
CG: Was it at all difficult to write about Angel’s departure and the surrounding issues?
CLARK: “Breakin’ Up Is Hard to Do” [the chapter title] was touchy, but I was careful not to take sides or point fingers. I tried to see it from everyone’s point of view, but I also depended on documentation. They saved all the letters from the managers and so forth, so I could back up what I said.
CG: I like the way the book is structured, with the history going to a certain point but then branching off into the profiles and discussions of various tangential areas.
CLARK: It’s a little cute, but I wanted to organize everything in fours. There are four parts, each part has four chapters, and then I have a frame—an introduction and an encore, which is followed by four appendices, and then the photo gallery in the middle, which tells the story in a different way. It’s a very symmetrical layout.
CG: I assume there are things that didn’t make the cut that you were heartbroken to lose from the manuscript?
CLARK: Oh, yes. [Laughs] Because I originally intended this for a wide audience that included non-guitarists, I actually had an introductory chapter about the guitar, so when I mentioned people like Gaspar Sanz or Luis Milán, I wasn’t just dropping names. I also explained flamenco and what the different terms mean and a little history. So to reach the publisher’s word limit, I decided to drop it and instead put in a glossary of names and terms in the back.
CG:Obviously the Romeros are Spanish and completely devoted to Spanish music, but they’ve also been living in California for more than 60 years. Is there any way their California life has influenced them musically?
CLARK:I think so. In the chapter about their repertoire I point out there’s also an American dimension to what they do. They’ve worked with several American composers, most notably Morton Gould, who wrote a work for them and the San Diego Symphony [in the late ’60s] called Troubadour Music, which was revived a few years ago. I got to see it, and there’s nothing Spanish about it at all. And they’ve done other works that don’t have a Spanish flavor to them. They have integrated into American society, but the reason the book is titled that way is that was their first album, and it remains at heart what they are.