A plaintive Gypsy song, possibly of Ladino origin, is hybridized and reinterpreted, then viewed on the Internet, where roots and homelands blur
The song “Naci en Alamo” (“I Was Born in Alamo”) is a soulful and stirring lament of Gypsies living in Europe today. It’s a song about displacement and homelessness and ultimately about nostalgia for a birthplace that was never home. There is no home, there is no homeland, there is no place of origin.
No tengo lugar
Y no tengo paisaje
Yo menos tengo patria
Naci en Alamo
I have no place
And I have no landscape
Still less do I have a homeland
I was born in Alamo
Like the history of the Gypsies, the song itself has become an archaeological enigma. It has crossed so many borders and been sung in so many languages that it is no longer easy to determine its roots or which precise Alamo, in either Spain or Portugal, the song is about. Even now, Naci en Alamo roams a pathless Odyssey around the Mediterranean, no less homeless than a Gypsy. The word “Gypsy” itself turns out to be a conundrum as well. Gypsies, who speak Romany, refer to themselves as Roma, not with the exonym Gypsy. (Roma is the plural for Rom, meaning “man”—no relation to Romania.) “Gypsy” in English, just like the word gyftos in Greek, may be derived from gipcya, with a possible derivation from egipcien, because Gypsies were mysteriously believed to come from Egypt—which also means from far away, from elsewhere, or just simply from goodness-knows-where. Etymological dictionaries also suggest that the word might derive from the Greek for untouchables, athinganoi, hence zingaro in Italian, tsigane and gitan in French, gitano in Spanish, ţigan in Romanian, cigano in Portuguese. The real origin of the word, like the real origin of the people, is lost in time. There is no origin.
Western Europe first encountered “Naci en Alamo” in Tony Gatlif’s 2000 film Vengo. A stark, frequently violent, elegiac portrait of the hardscrabble lives of Gypsies, Vengo is rife with crime, drink, blood feuds, and, as always, music, laughter, and dance. The film opens with a gathering of a seemingly privileged audience in Spain about to enter a large ruined church temporarily converted into a concert hall. The camera focuses on a flamenco guitarist and a violinist and on the rhythmic loud clapping of hands. Soon enough, the camera shifts to another part of the hall where a group of Arab performers have joined the Spanish duo: drummers, a flautist, a violinist, and a lutanist, and finally a Flamenco Sufi singer, the Egyptian Ahmad Al Tuni, begins to chant to the rhythmic clank of a metal object, possibly a large key, which he strikes against a thick drinking glass—not an atypical percussive feature in flamenco folksongs, especially in the cante jondo (deep song) style. The blending of Arab with Andalusian strains, underscored by flamenco, with its Gypsy roots, is not new to Spain and harks back to the long period of Convivencia when Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived together in relative harmony there in the early Middle Ages. Some claim that cante jondo predates the Moorish invasion in the 8th century and goes back to Byzantine liturgical music. Even if this were true, it takes no expert to recognize that the more stirring and heartrending the sustained wail of cante jondo the clearer its affiliation to traditional Arab music.
It is no accident that Tony Gatlif should want to open his film with this scene. Not only is Gatlif restoring the millenary contributions of so many ethnicities in the creation of Spanish music, but, as with almost everything he touches, he is forever prodding questions of displacement, exile, memory, and cultural miscegenation. Things are never one thing; they are always hybrid. People don’t come from one place; they come from at least two. Gatlif is not just a Gypsy; he is an Algerian of Gypsy descent now living in France—displaced, that is, to the third degree. His name is not even Tony Gatlif; it is Michel Dahmani. Like the song, he too is without place, without homeland, without borders.
But then even the title of “Naci en Alamo” begins to shadow over. Alamo (not the Alamo in Texas) is a very small town in Portugal. The Internet, where hunches run amok and facts are distorted no differently than among early historians, suggests that several scenes of the film were indeed shot on location in or near Alamo. Alamo—and one could see why it drew the attention of a Gypsy filmmaker making a film about Gypsies—sits right on the very border between Portugal and Spain. It lies in no one country.
To further confuse matters, there is more than one Alamo in Portugal, just as there are several Alamos in Spain. In fact, there is an Alamo close to the one on the border just across from the Alamo near Seville.
Things get more complicated yet. “Naci en Alamo” sounds like “Naci en el amor”: “I was born of love, of passion,” but it could just as easily mean “out of wedlock.” Once again, the Internet and Gatlif favor Alamo over el amor, but the partisans of each staunchly stick to their views. Adjudication is pointless where speculation prevails or where rumor has the last word.
Nearly 50 years after Walt Disney’s death, biographers and fans still debate if he was an anti-Semite. A better question might be why we still care.