It may appear that Roberto Campos is a man busking for change, sitting by the Mexican liberty bell in Dolores Park, wearing aviators and strumming his guitar. But he is just practicing his flamenco for the joy of it, no overturned hat full of coins in front of him.
The 83-year-old, originally from the Santa Cruz mountains near San Jose, has lived in the city since the early ’70s. Music has not always been his profession — he worked at nearby St. Luke’s hospital as a respiratory therapist for 35 years — but it is his longtime passion.
Nowadays, when he isn’t practicing in the park, you can catch him performing — with his hair combed back and Spanish guitar in hand — at different venues along Valencia Street on Saturday afternoons.
He works for Noise Pop’s Summer of Music, performing live shows during the weekly block parties on Valencia. He has recently played in several local businesses, like the Beer Store and West of Pecos, often accompanied by other artists. To his surprise, his first show was at an antique store.
“It’s interesting to see people’s reactions,” he said. “For some people, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard flamenco.”
Campos has dedicated decades to mastering flamenco. He taught himself how to play classic guitar as a teenager in San Jose. In 1965, he went to Spain for a year to study singing accompaniment, but instead wound up playing guitar in a small town called Morón de la Frontera. There, he worked with Joselero, a prominent flamenco artist.
Back in San Francisco, Campos spent about 30 years playing for Rosa Montoya, a Spanish flamenco artist who founded and ran a dance company in the city.
To talk to Campos is to learn about all the artists and musicians who influenced him. “Do you know Jose Grego?” he said. “He’s the one who made flamenco famous in the United States. Have you ever seen that movie ‘Carmen?’” he continues, before citing a few more references that touched upon his encyclopedic knowledge on the genre.
But the best way to learn about flamenco is to hear it, played by Campos, sitting by the Mexico liberty bell in Dolores park.