The Nile Project was born in a bar in Oakland, California. Ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis sat with his friend, singer Meklit Hadero, to discuss the differences between music born in their two countries. Girgis grew up in Egypt, Hadero in Ethiopia. While both countries reside in the Nile Basin, cultural barriers restrict collaboration between the two.
The Nile River frequently divides rather than promotes cross-cultural interaction. Long and thin, the river stretches 4,258 miles through 11 countries. Approximately 437 million people rely on the waterway for electricity, irrigation, drinking water, and transportation, among other resources. Because of the Nile’s limited water supply, conflicts often arise between communities attempting to dictate its usage.
In 2013 Ethiopia began construction on the Grand Renaissance Dam, Africa’s biggest hydroelectric plant. The dam’s reservoir would be capable of holding the Blue Nile’s entire volume of water. Egypt—a desert country heavily dependent on the Nile for water—feared losing precious water supplies and threatened military action. It took until March 2015 for the countries to sign a declaration allowing the construction. Through the Nile conflicts, Girgis saw an opportunity for music to unite its citizens in search of cooperative solutions.
“I thought this music could really help give people from these countries a platform for dialogue,” Girgis say. “[We could] use the music to inspire building trust and having more conversation around water issues.”
Since its inception in 2011, The Nile Project has toured the world, performed concerts and organized workshops about water issues. They released their first album, “Aswan,” to critical acclaim in 2013 and their second album, “Jinja,” in January.
The beginning of Girgis’ journey toward actualizing the project wasn’t easy. While many music experts understand parts of the Nile Basin, few have dedicated time to understanding the region as a whole. Girgis embarked on extensive research of its countries in order to grasp their unique musical traditions. He eventually traveled to each area to scout musicians. Though the process was arduous, it wasn’t hard to inspire them to join.
“There was a lot of curiosity and enthusiasm,” Girgis says, “and we realized from there the Nile is a really deep identity marker for a lot of people. You talk to an Egyptian, a Sudanese, a Ugandan, or anyone from other countries and feel they are equally connected to the river—it’s meaningful to all of them.”
Two Nile Project musicians—Kasiva Mutua, a Kenyan percussionist, and Steven Sogo, a Burundian multi-instrumentalist—say the experience of collaborating with other cultures has helped them grow. Mutua grew up in a culture dominated by male drummers. Her grandmother first inspired her interest in sound and rhythm through storytelling. When Mutua heard a female drummer perform at her school, she knew she wanted to play. She worked hard to overcome gender roles and skepticism from her male peers, and she is now considered one of Kenya’s top percussionists. She was insecure about how the other musicians would respond to a female percussionist in the Nile Project, but her fears quickly dissipated.
“I was received with open arms,” Mutua says, “and that made me very comfortable The Nile Project has been an encouraging platform, rather than being beaten to the ground and told you cannot be a percussionist because you’re female.”
Sogo, too, found an inclusive and inspiring community. He started playing music at age 14—first on guitar, then on bass. Later as a teen, he explored traditional instruments through the music of Burundi. Sogo now plays ikembe, among other instruments. On ikembe he plucks tuned metal strips, or lamellas, to create sound. When collaborating with musicians of other cultures, he noted the difficulty of adjusting to foreign scales and rhythms, but he was grateful for the knowledge and opportunity to expand his musical and cultural understanding.
“It’s a great idea, and I think it inspires a lot of thinking,” Sogo affirms. “When you go deep, and you think about the future, in 50 or 60 years—when you open your mind in that way—you start understanding change needs to start now.”
Since last year, the project partnered with six universities in Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to bring together students to tackle Nile sustainability problems. It will now host and sponsor events in Wilmington from March 24 through the 29: concerts, workshops, lectures, panel discussions, and more. It all starts at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium on Saturday, March 25. Girgis and The Nile Project aim to spark discussion and contemplation about water issues, both in the Nile Basin and the Cape Fear area. They will feature musicians from multiple Nile Basin countries performing music sung in 10 different languages. The next day Cameron Art Museum will host The Nile Project Community Day so visitors can watch mini-concerts, participate in dance and music workshops with performers, and partake in discussions about water resource management locally and globally.
On Monday Girgis joins research professors and educators of UNCW’s Center for Marine Science to examine how science and community pertain to Cape Fear’s water-quality-related issues. On Wednesday they wrap up the week with a sunset river tour, in partnership with Wilmington Water Tours. It features discussions with local historians about the history and ecology of the Cape Fear, as well as live performances by the project’s musicians.
“We feel the Nile creates a lot of cultural imagination,” Girgis says, “and many people wouldn’t really think about their local watersheds if it wasn’t for something so ambitious that came to their doorstep. . . .What’s going on in their own backyard? How can they relate whatever conversation we’re having about East Africa to what’s happening in their own county or state?”
On Tuesday, March 28, in Kenan Auditorium, they will hold a discussion on traditional leadership roles females have played in the Nile. They also will explore different traditions of Zar, a female-centric trance ritual.
A full schedule and tickets to the main concert are available at UNCW’s website.