“Imagine the amount of sorrow this wood has seen,” said Pepe. “And Joy,” countered his son, also Pepe, of the surprisingly heavy wooden plank I held.
These would be Pepe Romero, my dear friend and neighbor, preeminent concert guitarist, and Pepe Romero—the son, whom I will refer to as Pepito, for differentiation—my growing friend, and masterful luthier, as guitar-makers are more properly called. And ukulele-makers, too, in his case.
The rough-hewn plank of Spanish pine, its stubbly surface, coarse to my touch, was the point of reference in this discussion. And there, an arm’s length off my left shoulder were two magnificent, audaciously beautiful just-completed examples of Pepito’s craftsmanship—as yet unstrung Spanish concert guitars. Their faces glowed the pine’s rich honey gold, the sides and backs contrasting with the dark and light grains of rosewood.
The backstories of these guitars compel my sharing. Granada’s Hospital Real was built between 1502 and 1522 at the behest of queen Isabela and king Fernando of Spain, those monarchs who had bankrolled Christopher Columbus in 1492. This is when Spain, under these Catholic monarchs succeeded in pushing the Moors from the Iberian peninsula, the apogee at the time of Islamic expansionism. Originally used in caring for soldiers injured in the battle to retake the city, the structure then became the first European lunatic asylum, then hospital again, and now an edifice of the University of Granada’s library.
A Granadan artisan carpenter named Paco Montañez, who specializes in repairs and reconstruction of ancient historical buildings like the Alhambra and the Hospital Real, was employed by Pepe in a rebuild of his and esposa Carissa’s European-away Granada home. Paco had replaced a Hospital beam, and wood from that was being used in the Romero residence. Visiting Paco’s workshop and hearing the beam eerily singing as the saw cut into it, Pepe attested such apparently musical wood should be saved for use by Pepito in constructing guitars back in his Del Mar workshop.
Alone with Pepito the next day, he mused on the history of this wood, a massive beam five hundred years ago when laid in the hospital, yet having begun life a tiny seed dropping in the wind from a tree maybe a millennium before then.
What a humbling thought. What an exhilarating thought. How metaphoric for his own family tree, a story of the seed truly not falling far from the tree. And is it too far a reach in this season to not see parallels to the Christmas story, a humble beginning in a stable with the wooden manger, of a gift of love, of beauty and peace? The thought resonates with me, much more fulfilling than the hypertension of the malls.
The family, longtime residents of Del Mar, hails originally from Málaga, Spain. Pepito’s grandfather, the inestimable Celedonio, revered for his performance prowess and compositional genius, ever the gentle poetic romantic, and sire of the first family of the Spanish guitar—Celin, Pepe, and Angel. Concert guitar performances could be in any combination of numbers from solo to quartet, and all three sons are famous musicians the world over. Celedonio, and his wife Angelita have passed on, and the quartet now performs with Celin and Pepe, as well as Celino and Lito, Celin’s and Angel’s sons.
Pepito has shared with me that there had once been unspoken, yet palpable expectations that he, too, should join the family performance dynasty. But he heard and has embraced a different muse, turning his hands to crafting the instruments themselves, exquisitely creating beauty for the eye, the ear, and the tactile. Having known Celedonio for many years across the backyard fence, I find Pepito’s thoughts and philosophical expressions very… in tune… with his abuelo. I have no doubt that Celedonio smiles proudly at the broad curves and nuanced details of Pepito’s work and words. I know first-hand that his father does. For what it’s worth, so do I.
My dad, both a musician and a painter, conveyed that he saw human creativity as mankind’s modest recapitulation of God’s seminal expression of creative love—by humans, at once an homage, a touch of the sincerest form of flattery, and a fulfillment of mankind’s destiny as breathed into humankind at creation. I express it poorly, and for some this will sound too too. Whatever, for me, it is essential truth. It is why I love beauty as the fruit of creativity. And it is basic to the natural resonant camaraderie Celedonio, his sons, grandsons, and great grandson, Bernardo and I share.
The creation of music and the tools for its performance, its composition, its transcriptive adaptation, the philosophy of its place in the world, the appreciation of its beauty and redemptive powers, even the poetry flowing from those who would embrace all this is the family tree that lives from the seed of Celedonio. And it glows quietly and exquisitely in Pepito and his creations—his gifts to the world.
I referenced the season and the Christmas story above. Let me add a whimsical tangent for you non Latin or Catholic scholars. Both of the Pepes are actually named José, the Spanish version of Joseph. Joseph is considered Pater Putativus, or “P.P.”—Latin for “father in name only.” In Spanish, the letter “P” is pronounced approximately as in “pay,” and PP would be pronounced Pepe—the Spanish nickname for José. Who knew?
‘Tis the season of giving. Each of us having received the gift of life and the gifts of our living. It’s the season in which we take stock of our blessings and seek to share blessings with others. My neighbors give the gift of music to the world, caretakers of their unique capabilities and lineage, a human parallel to the sojourn of the pine seed. Beauty shared with us all. From my father, I inherit a particular affinity for this sort of thing, and I relish my proximal opportunity to convey this modest story as my Christmas season gift to you.
As Ever, T