Indelible Music Inspires New View of Countries Connected by Nile River

Musicians from the Nile Project. (Photo: Matjaz Kacicnik/The Nile Project)

In the popular imagination, the Nile River has been mythologized for centuries, most often in connection with Egypt. Moses was found on the banks of Egypt’s Nile. Pharaohs waged wars over Egypt’s waterways. “Egypt,” the Greek historian Herodotus once said, “is the gift of the Nile.”

But that gift was never limited to Egypt. The Nile intersects 11 African countries. And Mina Girgis, an Egyptian-born ethnomusicologist who lives in San Francisco, and Meklit Hadero, an Ethiopian-born singer who also lives in San Francisco, want more people to understand the Nile’s cultural, social, and environmental interconnectedness – and they want more people to deem themselves “Nile citizens,” even if they never set foot in the river’s expansive waterways.

To realize that ideal, Girgis and Hadero co-founded the Nile Project, an ambitious tour of singers and musicians who are performing this year around the United States and also participating in small workshops and seminars. Every artist on stage is rooted in a Nile country. Every artist is, through words and music, projecting something incisive – and insightful – about the world’s longest river.

One example: Sophie Nzayisenga of Rwanda, who is the first woman in her country to perform on the inanga, a zither instrument that approximates the size of a small surfboard. Played with both hands, the inanga becomes under Nzayisenga’s direction a stringed instrument of soulful stirrings. Another example: Alai K of Kenya, whose “SwahiliSoul” songs are like resonant proverbs, and emphasize a voice that slides up and down scales with ease and drama, as in the tune "Mtema Kuni".

Before embarking on the Nile Project in 2011, even Girgis, a worldly academic and professional with a graduate degree in ethnomusicology, was surprised by the scope of music from Ethiopia, a Nile country along with Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the  Democratic Republic of the Congo. Once Girgis familiarized himself with Ethiopian music, it was basically love at first sight.

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“People learn in different ways, and are interested in different things, and one thing that ethnomusicologists have in common is that they go where their ears take them,” Girgis says. “I’ve let my ear take me many places with my studies. But in this case, my ears took me to Ethiopia, and from there I realized there is a geography we could draw around the Nile that may challenge a lot of the geography the world has seen. Most people don’t see see sub-Saharan countries in East Africa to be in any way related to Egypt. We’ve gotten people to start seeing in a bio-regional sense the connections that these countries share.”

Musicians from the Nile Project (Photo by Peter Stanley/The Nile Project)
Musicians from the Nile Project (Photo by Peter Stanley/The Nile Project)

Thirteen musicians, including Hadero, are touring with this year’s version of the Nile Project, which last year went to Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda. The Nile Project is stopping for concerts at Stanford on Wednesday, Feb. 18 and at Berkeley on Thursday, Feb. 19, and for a major symposium in Berkeley on Friday, Feb. 20 that will address the topics of “The Nile and African Identity,” “Music Collaboration and Water Cooperation,” and “Food Along the Nile.” Workshops are also being held in Berkeley and Stanford. So the tour is touching on serious Nile issues, and not shying away from addressing the disputes that Nile Basin countries have had -- and still have -- over resources. Issues surrounding gender, colonialism and other key areas are also addressed. The off-stage discussions are as important as the on-stage performances.

“Audiences want to have conversations with the musicians,” says Girgis. “Most people know about the musical component of what we do, and that we curate these cross-cultural musical collaborations. We’re getting people to become more curious environmentally and culturally, and encouraging them to dig deeper — to move from the abstract, ephemeral experience of the concert into a more critical experience and intellectual experience of, ‘What is surrounding these issues?’ And what are the challenges at the root of the water conflict facing the water basin? And what is our role as ‘Nile citizens,’ whether we happen to live in the United States or East Africa, in contributing to the sustainability of this river by coming up new collaborations, new solutions, and a dialogue that allows us to hear each other and to resolve some of the tensions that exist in the watershed? The workshops are primarily musically based, so they connect directly from the concert into the issues that we want to bring up.”

In the workshop on “The Nile and African Identity,” Girgis says, “we question the whole idea of who is African and who is not. Sub-Saharan Africans in the Nile Basin will treat Egyptians as Arabs or North Africans. And Egyptians themselves won’t think of themselves as African. This African identity question complicates the conversation around the Nile.

“I think of myself,” he adds, “as an Egyptian, as an African, as a U.S. citizen. For me, it’s really where you feel you contribute as much as you feel you belong.”

When the musicians get on stage, the hard issues of identity, water and resources are put on hold. “We let the music,” Girgis says, “speak for itself.” Each of the Nile Project’s musicians is worth seeing. On stage in one concert? Together? It’s like a Grammys for Nile musicians. It’s an Outside Lands for world music fans.

The Nile Project recorded a 2013 album, Aswan, based on a live performance in Aswan, Egypt. Aswan is bone-chillingly good, beginning with its first song, Sangwab, which features Sudanese singer and masankop player Ahmed Said Abuamna. Reaching notes that defy logic, Abuamna and Egyptian violinist Alfred Gamil perform a call-and-response that is nicely complemented by other musicians. The crowd went wild then. They should go wild again at Berkeley and Stanford if the Nile Project performs Sangwab here.

The 2015 tour is spanning four months, and each stop is connecting to audiences -- especially students -- who have a chance to interact with the musicians in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily have. “One of the advantages,” Girgis says, “is that we’re doing multi-day residencies at each university, and it’s giving us time to settle in and spend a few days in the same place and really get to know the place -- as opposed to landing, playing a show, and then leaving without even getting any sense of location. And I think that’s particularly relevant to the musicians, some of whom are here (in the United States) for the first time. For them, it’s an incredible experience getting to know the diversity of the United States.”

In that way, the Nile Project is a two-way street. Americans are getting to know the Nile. And the musicians are getting to know America. It’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s also a beautiful thing to hear.

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The Nile Project performs on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 7:30pm, at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall; and on Thursday, Feb. 19, 7:30pm, at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. On Friday, Feb. 20, 2pm, musicians and organizers participate in a three-session symposium at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way in Berkeley. For tickets and more information, see the artists' website.

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