From the Fall 2016 issue of Ukulele | BY BLAIR JACKSON
As might be gathered from the title, the recent album Aloha España represents the meeting of two cultures—Hawaiian and Spanish, as represented by ukulele and guitar master Daniel Ho and classical-guitar great Pepe Romero, respectively. Musically, the album leans very heavily to traditional classical-guitar repertoire, but yes, that is Ho’s sonorous ukulele on eight of the disc’s 13 tracks. Four of the pieces are ukulele and guitar duets with Romero, for which Ho wrote his own ukulele parts, with four solo-uke numbers where Ho plays one of his own pieces and also tackles arrangements of Bach and Pachelbel. Romero also has four solo turns, and the album closes with a guitar duet.
The third star of Aloha España is Pepe Romero Jr., who built all the instruments played on the album, including several wonderful-sounding ukuleles. Indeed, ukuleles are now an integral part of the luthier’s Romero Creations company.
On its face, the pairing of multiple Grammy–, No Hoku Hanohano–, and Hawaii Music Awards–winner Ho with one of the preeminent classical players of the modern era might look like a stretch. But the fact is Ho started out as a classical guitarist and has never lost his interest and affection for the art. “I studied classical guitar for five years starting when I was nine,” he says by phone from his LA-area home (he grew up in Hawaii). “I listened to Andrés Segovia a lot—everybody did at that time—and Christopher Parkening, Julian Bream. And of course the Romero Family was playing and I was aware of them. My dad bought me a Takamine guitar when I was nine and I still have it. In fact, I recorded with it until a few years ago.”
Although Ho says he has been a fan of Pepe’s for a long time, the two first connected through Pepe Jr. when the younger Romero started building ukuleles a few years ago. Ho and Pepe Jr. were both based in southern California, so getting together was easy. “He had already been building classical guitars for a long time,” Ho says. “He was trained by some of the great [luthiers] in Europe and was very traditional, with French polish and all that. He went to Hawaii one time and his daughter asked him to make her a ukulele. So he started building ukuleles and fell in love with it. His way of approaching the instrument is like a miniature classical guitar, so he just scaled everything down.
“A few years ago,” Ho continues, “a mutual friend told Pepe Jr., ‘You should meet my friend Daniel.’ So he brought over four instruments—they were all tenors, joined at the 12th fret, like miniature classical guitars. I plucked the first note and I’d never heard anything like that before. I didn’t know that much sound could come out of a ukulele. The wood thicknesses are ridiculous, so thin—1.6 millimeters! I have a couple of them. One is Italian maple back and sides with a cedar top, and if you hold it up to the sunlight you can see through it! If you touch the back while you’re playing it—and I play holding it in classical position so I don’t touch the back—you probably lose 20 percent of the sound. It’s like every part of the instrument is a soundboard—it’s paper-light.”
CREATING THE TINY TENOR
Their initial meetings led to Ho and Pepe Jr. collaborating on a new style of uke—the Tiny Tenor, which has become a staple of Romero Creations’ ukulele line. It’s waistless contour somewhat resembles the pineapple-shaped ukes introduced in the 1920s, but with the power and projection of Romero’s more guitar-like tenors.
“Through my travels, I’ve learned that the concert size is by far the most popular size when people buy ukuleles,” Ho notes, “and the tenor is a little more popular than the soprano. My question to Pepe was, ‘Can we fit a full tenor ukulele into the size of a concert, so we can have the [concert’s] portability, but still have the tenor sound?’
“Length is the most uniform dimension. That’s what gets it on an airplane [overhead compartment]. So, what’s not important to the functionality? We have to maintain the 17 inches of the tenor from the nut to the bridge for it to retain the tenor scale. Well, the headstock doesn’t have as much impact on the sound as the body, so we shortened that headstock, and now you’re at 23 inches in length. That’s the length of a concert. What other part don’t we use, because we want to have as much cubic volume inside a concert-sized instrument? We don’t use the waist. With a classical guitar, you sit the waist on your left leg—or your right leg if you’re a pop player like Jack Johnson. We don’t do that with the uke. So if we get rid of the waist, the body becomes less rigid. So we made straight curved sides and that made the sides of the instrument into soundboards. It adds a little more thump to the sound and it also increases cubic volume. It actually draws from the design of a lute.”
The soundhole on the Tiny Tenor is a little larger, “to let more sound escape,” Ho adds, and is also pushed up toward the neck, to maximize the soundboard’s efficiency and to take advantage of the interior’s fan-bracing, which stretches outward from the soundhole to the endpin.
Ho now has several Romero-made ukes, including a custom Tiny Tenor made of African satinwood and spruce (“My acoustic performing instrument; no pickup and it has to fill up a concert hall”); the Italian-maple-and-cedar (“probably the loudest uke I own; it’s all projection”); an all-koa model; a handmade Brazilian-rosewood-and-spruce instrument that he doesn’t take anywhere “because it’s too valuable”; and a six-string that’s a little bigger than a baritone and has rosewood back and sides with a spruce top.
Daniel’s G-string ukulele, which is slightly larger than a baritone, and a 4-string tenor, with Brazilian rosewood back and sides, flank Pepe Sr.’s guitar.
A NATURAL EVOLUTION
The Aloha España project evolved naturally out of the creative partnership of Ho and Pepe Romero Jr. “At one point, Pepe [Jr.] said, ‘You should come down here [to the San Diego area where the Romeros have lived for many years] and meet my dad, and you should play with him. These prototypes are here, so you could do a little video. [Pepe Sr.’s] father, Celedonio, had written a second part for [pioneering classical guitar composer Fernando] Sor’s ‘Romance,’ a beautiful counterpoint. He said, ‘If you can play the main part, my dad can play the second part.’ So I practiced for a couple of months, and then I’m there in the living room of the Romero home in Del Mar! To say it was an honor is an understatement, because in a way it felt like everything I’d been doing in my life in music was kind of leading up to doing something like this with someone I admire so much. And Pepe is such an encouraging, happy, joyful person; full of music.
So we played together [each on guitar] and recorded it. I took the recording home and worked with it a little bit in the studio and sent it to him. He liked it and said, ‘We should release it,’ and then the idea came up to do a whole record together.” Aside from providing an opportunity for these two virtuosos to play together, the album also became a showcase for Pepe Romero Jr.’s instruments—indeed, he even appears with his father and Ho on the cover of Aloha España.
“Romance,” the lone guitar duet on the CD, provides the lovely conclusion to the disc. But the most interesting pieces are the four featuring guitar and ukulele. Two of them—Francisco Tárrega’s “Recuerdos de la Alhambra” and Isaac Albéniz’s “Leyenda” (often called “Asturias”)—are among the most well-known and oft-recorded solo works in the classical-guitar canon, so there was some risk involved with adding a second part—a ukulele part, no less—to such iconic pieces. (The other two duo pieces, “Canarios” and “Pavana,” both by Gaspar Sanz, are also quite famous.) It was a challenge that Ho took very seriously.
During his high school years, he had studied classical composition with a private teacher, primarily learning about “Bach and 18th-century harmony-writing and chorale-writing,” he remembers. “I was also trying to compose more contemporary things on my own and I brought in a piece and my teacher said, ‘Why did you write this?’ I said, ‘I thought it sounded good.’ He said, ‘Don’t write anything unless you can explain why you wrote it.’ And that has stuck with me. On Aloha España, I went back to the way of writing where I could explain every single note: ‘This is where this came from—this theme; this augmentation.’” He was careful to write parts that complemented and supported the existing parts rather than upstaging them.
“On a piece like ‘Canarios,’” he says, “almost everything is drawn from the original melody. In essence, it’s almost not composed, but it is, because it’s taken from the original music and then embellished.” His part for “Leyenda” alone took more than two weeks to write, but the genius of it—and the other duos—is that the finished work sounds like a natural, organic offshoot of the familiar solo-guitar version.
Of course, Ho is hardly the first person to play classical music on the ukulele—there are many sheet music books of classical repertoire available, and in the liner notes for Aloha España, Pepe Romero makes special mention of the late John King for “championing the classical ukulele [and for being] a major inspiration for me to do this project.” Even so, Aloha España is something different, a successful fusion that, in Ho’s words, brings “the expressive sound of the ukulele into the classical music limelight.”