Tomás ‘El Nitri’ is one of the most enigmatic characters that flamenco has ever seen in its history. His real name has been a source of speculation for many researchers, but the latest findings identify him as Tomás Ortega López, who was born in Puerto de Santa María, Spain, in 1838 and died in Jerez de la Frontera in 1877. (Tomás Ortega López:…de…el-nitri/tomasnitri-2/)

This meant that he belonged to the Ortega clan, an important family of Roma flamenco artists; not only was ‘El Fillo’ (Francisco Ortega Vargas) his uncle, but the Ortegas were also related to the family of Manolo ‘Caracol’ (Manuel Ortega Juárez) and the bullfighters known as ‘Los Gallos’.

‘El Nitri’ received his first musical training from his family, which proved to be a highly valuable legacy. In addition to what he learned at home, in the mid-nineteenth century ‘El Nitri’ was surrounded by Roma in San Fernando and Puerto de Santa María, the two ports of Cádiz. This is where the first great siguiriyeros such as María Borrico, Curro Durse and El Viejo de la Isla performed their creations – works which ended up shaping flamenco history. (Siguiriyas – which can also be written as seguiriyas, siguerillas, siguirillas and seguidilla gitana, among other spellings – is a form of flamenco music belonging to the cante jondo category. Its deep, expressive style is among the most important in flamenco. People who sing this style and are known for their artistry with this palo are called siguiriyeros)

We should not forget that we are talking about the foundations of Cante Gitano, or Roma flamenco song; the melodies that would one day make up the core of Roma flamenco song were being created by those people, at that time and in those places, along with Triana and Jerez de la Frontera.

This musical basis gave ‘El Nitri’ a solid footing upon which he could make his contributions to the art form. Three siguiriya creations are attributed to him, although we will highlight just the first on account of its originality. This melody, based on the music of another great siguiriyero, namely Curro Durse, was recorded for the first time by Antonio Mairena in 1964; until then it had only been passed on orally:

The emotional capacity and vocal qualities possessed by ‘El Nitri’ made him unsurpassable as a cantaor por siguiriya , something which led to a rapid rise in his fame.

In search of better working conditions he moved to Seville, where the cafés cantantes (Cafés cantantes were entertainment establishments where, in addition to drinks being served, there were performances of flamenco singing, music and dancing. These cafés were at their peak from the mid-nineteenth century and well into the second decade of the twentieth century) provided a venue where singers of the era could perform. He was welcomed by his uncle ‘El Fillo’ and by the latter’s partner ‘La Andonda’. ‘El Nitri’s’ musical horizons must have been broadened considerably by being in contact with these two creative cante geniuses (Cante can be translated as ‘flamenco song’ but the term encompasses a lot more than just song, for it refers to one of the three main pillars of flamenco, along with toque and baile. It is important to note that cante is fundamental to flamenco. In addition to the aforementioned meaning, cante can also be used as a global concept referring to all three elements: to the culture within flamenco, to the musical genre itself, and as a word that includes the flamenco way of being and expressing), in addition to the stimulation provided by the nascent flamenco scene in Seville and Triana. (Triana is a neighbourhood in Seville with a rich flamenco history and a large Roma community)

Tomás’ bohemian character made him restless, and soon he was singing in the cafés of Málaga, Granada and Jerez. His reputation as an exceptional cantaor grew rapidly. It was after one of his performances in Málaga in 1868 that the audience was so amazed by the cante sung by this Roma, a decision was made to give him the Llave de Oro del Cante Flamenco – the ‘golden key of flamenco song’. This award arose spontaneously, and was without precedent or any great intrinsic value. However, over time, the trophy would become a symbol of flamenco ( mastery and purity. It is only seldom bestowed: in 1925, Manuel Vallejo received the second Llave del Oro del Cante, but it was not until 1962 that Antonio Mairena would be awarded the third ‘golden key’, thanks too to his role in the renaissance of flamenco art and the restoration of its great status. In 2000, the Andalusian regional government gave the fourth Llave to Camarón de la Isla, and in 2005 the fifth was presented to Antonio Fernández ‘Fosforito’.

The first ever recipient, Tomás ‘El Nitri’, died of tuberculosis in Jerez without surviving to see his thirty-ninth birthday. He is renowned as one of the most famous cantaores in the history of flamenco, and as someone who shaped a great tradition for Spanish Roma.

Nonetheless, his legacy went unrecognised when the historic first sound recordings of flamenco were produced. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that Antonio Mairena rediscovered him, and ensured – on the basis of performances by Pastora Pavón and Antonio Frijones – that he received the recognition he had so deserved for his groundbreaking work in maintaining the musical cultural heritage of Roma in Spain.