Moving between North Africa, Andalusia (the southern region of Spain), and the history of Gitano family feuds that joins the living and dead, Tony Gatlif’s film, Vengo (2000), is a narrative of multiple crossroads. In this story, water, wind, and the cyclical nature of these natural forces are guiding metaphors that illuminate Andalusia as the land where Roma (“gitano” or “gypsy”), West African, Greco-Roman, Berber, Gnawa, Catholic, Sufi, and Sephardic religious systems and cultures meet. Thus, for a film that follows these civilizations and historical trajectories, it is fitting that the narrative opens with the image of boats in transit across a body of water. Vengo begins with the sound of flute and oud, currents of water shaped by wind, as musicians and those in attendance head to a space that will celebrate flamenco’s roots and routes.
The symbolic activity of crossing, a movement of translation that reminds us of continuities and connections between landmasses, also suggests that the film itself will be centered in a crossing mode of its own. Indeed, this crossing of what may be the Strait of Gibraltar—the narrow stretch of sea that links and separates North Africa and Europe—sets the stage for what will also be a fluid navigation of Andalusian cultural codes and aesthetic traditions that transform Andalusia and its diasporas across the Atlantic.
This first scene of water, boats, and the musicians is also a crossing into Pepa’s memory and spirit. Pepa is the daughter of Caco, played by the legendary dancer, Antonio Canales. Her spirit (along with the spirit of Sandro, whose death will be avenged) drives action in the film and Caco is in constant communication with her at all moments of narrative transition.
We learn that the song that they will play—a fantastic bridging of Sufi, Whirling Dervish, Flamenco traditions, and the journeys of the Roma people—was Pepa’s favirote. She would cry each time she heard the song and her own song and, in the film, it is in this song that her spirit is activated. We see her spirit dance alongside the musicians, sensed by them and the audience, but invisible as a physical form. Towards the end of the clip above, the spirit of Pepa dances and these circle rotations appear and re-appear throughout the film, a constant reminder of the presence of the ancestors and their ability to communicate through music and dance.
That the music and culture of Flamenco carries these family feuds, rooted also in respect and pride for those who came (vengo, from venir) before, and is a kind of altar for accessing the spirit world, is at the center of Gatlif’s work. In turn, this is what the Sirocco is also about—winds from a distant past that carry languages, memories, cultural traditions, and the voices of the ancestors.
We learn that Pepa’s favorite song—one of memory and longing—was by Sufi Zikr (and the word ‘Zikr’ invokes memory and saudade). You can hear, later in the film, Pepa’s own song with the same longing.
It is a song that carries us along the path to the world of the dead and the ancestors at the end of the film.