There are only 5 singers who have been awarded this Golden Key. But none of these names have been spared from ugly accusations. Perhaps, the current key, that of the great Fosforito, is the only one that makes every fan agree. And let’s take note: candidates are already being moved, living and dead, for the next key with a lot of debate on.

Llave de Fosforito, en 2005, mostrada en su museo.

Llave de Fosforito, en 2005, mostrada en su museo.

It is not known who created it, nor has its concession been without controversy. But the Golden Key of Singing, despite having only 5 winners of it, is the Nobel Prize of flamenco.

It seems that it was General Sanchez Mira who delivered the first Golden Key of Cante to Tomás El Nitri in 1868. Another line of investigation states that it was some fans of El Nitri, on a flamenco party, who would give it to him as a joke.

More doubts. It is also not known in which Andalusian town this handing over of the key took place. Studies by flamencologists such as Gonzalo Rojo assure that it was in Malaga.

El Nitri was the gypsy singer of the era of the singing cafés. He got along badly with Silverio Franconetti, another great but payo. Gypsy flamenco vs. payo flamenco is a classic confrontation between some sectors of flamenco. When the Nitri was proclaimed the “king of the cantes”, it was clear that the orthodox jondura had won the day.

The Second Key and the Shadow of Suspicion

Until El Nitri passed away, there could be no other king of singing. The Golden Key would not have the same relevance if it were held by several singers.

However, at his death (in 1877), that title seemed to be forgotten.

The owner of the Teatro Pavón in Madrid had created a prize for singing, the Copa Pavón, which premiered in 1925. This cup was intended to take advantage of the success of the 1922 Falla and Lorca Competition. El Niño de Escacena, Pepe Marchena, el Cojo de Málaga, El Mochuelo, and Manuel Vallejo competed for the award. El Niño de Escacena, Pepe Marchena, el Cojo de Málaga, El Mochuelo, and Manuel Vallejo competed for the award. The president of the jury was Antonio Chacón.

The mess was made with the Cup in ’26. A master of the saeta, Manuel Centeno, won. This decision did not please either the public or the president of the jury, again Antonio Chacón. Not because Centeno sang badly, on the contrary… If not because Vallejo presented himself again and the people wanted him to take that cup again.

This time, Antonio Chacón mounted a whole campaign in favor of Manuel Vallejo. What prize could be more than that of the Pavón Theater? Well, one of a great like Nitri: Chacón and his many followers took that Golden Key of Cante from oblivion to give it to Manuel Vallejo in 1926.

It was given to him by Manuel Torre himself, one of the geniuses of singing. Because of his exceptional artistry, Torre might have been a better candidate for that trophy, many experts say. The Pavón Cup was never held again.

Tomás El Nitri. Golden Key to Singing

Tomás El Nitri. Llave de oro del cante

Vallejo's blackboard recording in 1930.

Grabación pizarra de Vallejo en 1930.

Third Golden Key of Cante and the possible “tongo”

The third key also gave, and continues to give, a lot to talk about. Why?

In the 1950s, tablaos gave way to cafés cantantes. Flamenco became fashionable on radio stations and venues with a more popular style. In response to this flamenco and not pure art, following the spirit of the contest of ’22, the National Flamenco Singing Competition was created in Córdoba, which would later become the National Flamenco Art Competition.

Therefore, the purpose of this contest was to rescue the lost purity, the primitivism of the old cante jondo. Ricardo Molina and Anselmo González Climent, poets and flamenco lovers, promoted this festival with the support of the City Council of Cordoba. The first edition was in 1955.

In the second edition of the contest (1959), the overall winner was Fosforito, who won first prize in the four sections of the contest: seguiriyas, soleares, malagueñas and fandangos. In the third edition, in 1962, Juan Varea, Antonio Fernández Díaz Fosforito, Antonio Núñez Montoya Chocolate, Platerito de Alcalá and Antonio Mairena participated.

And it was in that third contest when the organization, led by Ricardo Molina, came up with the idea of rescuing the Golden Key. It was awarded to Antonio Mairena, which definitively boosted his figure in the face of his artistic “enemy” who was already retiring, Manolo Caracol. Por cierto, un gesto del ámbito flamenco que apoyaba un arte más ortodoxo y, de paso, el mairenismo. Something that made a lot of sense if one remembers why this contest was founded.

Something that made a lot of sense if one remembers why this contest was founded. One, that in that contest there were figures such as La Niña de los Peines, who was given a “move” so that she would not appear in Córdoba during the event (they tell it very well here).

Another was that Mairena was not yet at the level of other artists who presented themselves, such as Fosforito himself. And yet another, which Ricardo Molina had already dropped in conversations and letters that Mairena was going to win… This is what the event itself assures.

Of course, whether or not he deserved to be named the greatest in 1962, with Mairena, the Golden Key of Cante gained height and relevance.

Llave de Oro for Mairena's singing in 1962.

Llave de Oro al cante de Mairena de 1962.

Francisco Valdecillos, that great flamencologist and the first advisor to the Junta on flamenco matters that he left us in 1990, explains what that second Golden Key of Cante meant for Mairena:

“Antonio knew many things about Nitri and of course, winning the golden key that the Nitri had possessed – although the Nitri was not gold but iron – was undoubtedly a reason for joy,” he explained of that award given just 100 years after the first key. Because Mairena admired the Nitri.

Manuel Cepero Molina, of the Machado Foundation, wrote: “It is not unreasonable to say, in my humble opinion, that the golden key, the true Key of Cante, is the one given in Cordoba. Because it is Córdoba and it is Antonio Mairena who gives the key the true meaning that it has, or that it has had, or that, in some way, it should have today.”

There is a key planned for the touch, and it was said that they would give it to Manolo Sanlúcar. So far, nothing at all. There is a queen of dance, Matilde Coral, who has held it since 1972, for being, without a doubt, a teacher and a reference.

The Junta de Andalucía takes the reins

With so much mess in these keys, and given the relevance that this award took with Mairena, the Junta de Andalucía took charge in 1984 of all aspects of its delivery. He appointed a commission of experts and made his first decision: in 2001, he handed over the reign of cante to Camarón de la Isla on the anniversary of his death:

“By awarding the Golden Key of Cante, posthumously, to José Monge Cruz, the vitality of his legacy and his contribution to the work of an entire generation of flamenco artists is valued, and it is taken into account that this award has been awarded throughout history, with this one, four times, and each one for a different reason, to artists who at the time of their reception opened paths to flamenco in different ways.” Text of the Official Gazette of the Junta de Andalucía.

Again, controversy. Artists and fans debated whether this posthumous appointment made sense. In any case, a manifesto of support was signed by more than 5,000 artists. Purists who didn’t see this decision clearly had no choice but to take it.

The fifth, that of Fosforito, the most unanimous

A little late (since that contest in ’56…), Fosforito would say, but they gave him his well-deserved key. The official request was from the Provincial Council of Málaga. That was in 2005.

Few deny that he deserves it, not only for his style, his jondura and voice, but also for his work of rescuing forgotten songs. His key can be seen in his house-museum.

Key to Cante that Fosforito still has today

Llave del Cante que hoy sigue teniendo Fosforito

The Golden Key to Cante can only be held by one person. As we have already written in this post, it would not make sense for there to be several flamenco “kings” or “queens” of the moment. Some requests for it to be given to La Niña de los Peines, Manolo Caracol or Chocolate will have to wait (and hopefully a long time…).

As well as the request supported by flamenco experts and artists of all kinds, such as Carmen Linares, Miguel Ríos, Arcángel or Amparanoia, so that it is by Enrique Morente. And the same goes for the Utrera City Council, which is going to make official its commitment to Bernarda and Fernanda de Utrera.