By Linda L. Nelson
somewhere/elsewhere is not your “ordinary” American musical.
Turkish epic poetry, in particular the legend of Kerem and Aslı, and Muslim trance musical traditions are at the heart of this new work by Kerem Durdag and Andy Happel.
The legend of Kerem and Aslı is a tragic love story from the Turkish-Azerbaijani popular poetry of the 16th century. Performed by a traditional musician, an Aşık, or troubadour who recites poetic stories at weddings, public festivals, and in caravanserais (coffee houses), it is the tale of a love that is eternal and sacred — as well as doomed in this world by discrimination fueled by the historic battles between Christian and Muslim worlds.
Throughout history, the legend has been told through numerous poems and songs, a structure mirrored in somewhere/elsewhere both by the Derwish character and the play’s songbook.
The Derwish, drawn from Islamic Sufi culture, is the magical, otherworldly Aşık in somewhere/elsewhere who, similar to a Greek chorus in Western literature, adds an omniscient perspective and holds us in the story. In the Derwish’s poems we hear the tradition in which beauty and love are found in, and described in terms of, the beauty of the natural world’s mountains, rivers, and creatures.
The Derwish character focuses, historically and in the play, on the universal values of love and service: refusing the illusions of ego and practicing physical exertions, such as whirling! – or other practices to attain the ecstatic trance needed to reach God. Such practices often required durational music and performances lasting many hours. This same type of seeking across time and place defines Mehmet’s journey in this play.
And are not all journeys to find love? While we in the Western world often ascribe love narrowly to the romantic tradition, love is used more broadly and expansively in Turkish poetry to mean love of everything: love of God. Kerem reminded us, during the first rehearsal, that in Arabic God has 99 names, each with a different meaning. And so love, in somewhere/elsewhere, while definitely a force between the two protagonists, Mehmet and Elise, becomes a way of making sense of one’s search for God. In their love is the creation of meaning.
The dominant element in Turkic folk poetry has always been song. somewhere/elsewhere’s songbook is elemental to its Turkish/Pakistani roots. In the lyrics, as in the Derwish’s poetry, we witness the singers’ journeys and quests, and the tradition of describing beauty and love through the metaphors and allegories of the natural world
somewhere/elsewhere takes these centuries old traditions from the global places where the European and Asian continents meet and re-interprets them through the idioms of U.S. popular culture, particularly pop, rock, and film. If you listen closely, behind Andy’s use of the oud –— in Arabic considered to be the oldest musical instrument, and the most central instrument in Middle Eastern music traditions — you will also hear hints of Sting, Springsteen, and The Cure. This is our musical bridge, one that connects Mehmet’s ancestors and traditions to where he finds himself as a 20th century immigrant in Maine. And in somewhere/elsewhere as in these ancient oral traditions, people sing not just to communicate something: they sing because they feel.