Many Thousand Miles Behind Us Many Thousand Miles Before
Many Thousand Miles Behind Us Many Thousand Miles Before (2016) weaves together two songs about returning home after a long journey: “Rolling Home,” a 19th-century sea shanty, and the 1970s Lebanese hit song “Rajeen Ya Hawa.” These songs were chosen by performers Salam Nassar and Alison Lee Freeman for their ubiquity and associations with home, exile, and travel.
Sea shanties, sea songs, and ballads play an important role in Maine’s maritime history. These songs were primarily meant to accompany moments of work and leisure on board large merchant sailing vessels. While the lyrics and subjects of individual songs vary, most speak to the hope for smooth passages through treacherous waters and safe returns, and these songs were meant to forge a sense of togetherness and optimism among the crew.
The role of such songs still resonates in contemporary maritime transits. A Haaretz article from last year by Syrian journalist Thaer al-Nashef chronicles his experience crossing the Mediterranean Ocean from Turkey to Greece with Syrian and Afghani refugees. He states that while onboard, “almost unconsciously, everyone began singing Syrian folk songs together, helping to overcome the fear.” In 2015 alone, more than a million refugees and migrants from around the world undertook dangerous sea routes across the Mediterranean. The sea shanties create a connection to Maine’s past but rework them for present needs. In a state with a growing Arabic-speaking community, a governor who called for a ban of Syrian refugees, and the whitest population in the U.S., Many Thousand Miles asks the listener to consider these historically-rich shanties in the context of current conversations around immigration and diversity in Maine.
In Many Thousand Miles, two women sing both songs to emphasize the transformation of maritime travel into a place of loss and uprooting across gender and geography, their voices creating a sonic collage. Four speakers are installed in Maine’s Kennebec River at the Maine Maritime Museum, ten miles from where it empties into the ocean. Two rest behind the listener, two out in the water itself. The voices sing toward and away from the shore—simultaneously arriving and embarking, calling and responding, harmonizing and discording. Weather data is culled from sensors in the river and put into a pseudorandom number generator. The generator determines which speaker plays which track and when, creating a never- ending, yet never-identical composition. It unfolds with unpredictable potential, subject to the movement of the water.