The Nile Project, a collective of more than a dozen musicians from various countries along the Nile River Basin, is embarking on its first tour of the Unites States. The January-May string of dates includes a two-day stop in Asheville. On Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 18 and 19, the group leads daytime workshops and performs shows, nightly, at New Mountain.
The worships focus on river sustainability — a cause near to the heart of the Nile Project’s performers — as well as music. “On Saturday, Jan. 17, we will hold a workshop about civic engagement and water resource management in partnership with RiverLink,” says Mina Girgis, Nile Project executive director. “And on Sunday, Jan. 18, we will have a percussion master class followed by another workshop about the Nile and African Identity.”
As for the live shows, the band combines rhythms, sounds and languages from a number of cultures, as Girgis explains below. The process of crafting songs is no mere jam session. Artists shared ideas and instruments and creatively cross language barriers for an end result that’s ancient and modern, rhythmic, dramatic and thrillingly accessible.
Mountain Xpress: Where did the idea for the Nile Project start, and how were the musicians selected?
Mina Girgis: In August, 2011, I had just returned to San Francisco after a lively summer in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. As an applied ethnomusicologist, I have focused on designing cross-cultural musical collaborations and education systems. And I was looking for a way to use my skills to address some of the challenges that Egypt was facing post-[Egyptian president Muhammad Hosni El Sayed] Mubarak. On the day I arrived, my friend Marie Abe, a Japanese ethnomusicologist and accordion player, invited me to watch her Ethiopian Debo Band perform in Oakland. After the concert, I asked myself why I had not been exposed to the music of Ethiopia [while I was] growing up in Egypt — especially as the two countries share a river and there is a dire need for both Egyptians and Ethiopians to hear one another. That’s when I came up with the Nile Project and suggested it to Meklit Hadero.
In May, 2012, we went on a scouting trip to Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. We discussed the project with many musicians, water professionals and partners. And in January, 2013, we held our first residency in Aswan, Egypt. We invited 18 musicians from six Nile countries to collaborate on creating this new sound. Every year, we audition new musicians to join our collective. So far, we have 27 artists from nine of the 11 Nile Basin countries. We hope to grow this number in coming years.
How does the group practice? Do the musicians live in the same place now, or does everyone have to meet before a tour to rehearse?
The Nile Project collective members don’t live in the same place. Every year, we organize a two-week music residency where we invite 14-18 musicians to collaborate on a new performance set, which we then tour. For the time we’re not physically together, we share musical exercises and repertoires to continue our musical learning.
What is the songwriting process like? Is there one lead writer, or does everyone share ideas and collaborate on songs?
It depends. Some songs are written by one of the Nile Project artists. Some songs are commissioned by a songwriter and put to music by our musicians. And some songs are written collaboratively. Over the past two years, we have focused on collaborative compositions where many of our musicians contribute to writing the music and combining musical modes and rhythms from our various traditions. This year, we started experimenting with a more collaborative songwriting process. We hope to perform some of these multilingual pieces during our upcoming U.S. tour.
The press release for The Nile Project talks about how “Egyptian and Ethiopian artists have mastered each others’ wildly different modal systems.” Are there any surprising similarities in the music of the countries and cultures?
The Nile is the longest river in the world. It is also one of the most diverse basins in the world, both culturally and environmentally. While our musical traditions are clearly different, we have found some striking musical similarities like the lyre that exists in different shapes and under different names in every Nile Basin culture.
I imagine that there’s also a language barrier. How is this overcome in the ensemble?
Our languages define many of our decisions: how we sit so that conversations can be seamlessly translated, who is participating in each residency and tour so that there is no musician left behind with a missing translation link, and of course the time it takes to have a conversation.
If I say something in English, I need to translate in Arabic to our Egyptian and Sudanese musicians, then one of our bilingual Ethiopian musicians translates into Amharic, and the same goes for Swahili or Kinyarwanda. Feedback requires another round. The translation process has taught all of us to be clearer, more succinct and more patient. The Nile Project is a conversation, after all.
When you perform outside of Africa, is there a steep learning curve for audiences who might be experiencing particular instruments, melodies or rhythms for the first time? Do you talk about the various instruments from stage?
This upcoming U.S. tour is our first time to perform out of Africa. We imagine it will be a steep learning curve for audiences. But the learning curve was equally steep for our audiences in the Nile Basin. Many of the people who saw us last year had not seen the music nor the instruments featured on stage before these concerts. While cross-cultural understanding is one of the core values of the Nile Project, we try to distinguish between our concerts and our workshops. Concert audiences can learn about the Nile and the instruments on stage from our concert programs and our website. Our workshops, however, delve deeper into the Nile’s musical traditions, cultures, histories and ecologies.
Was the workshop aspect a part of The Nile Project from the beginning?
The Nile Project uses these cross-cultural musical collaborations to inspire its audiences to see the Nile as one ecosystem. But the project’s goal goes far beyond the concert hall. We’re hoping the music drives cultural and environmental curiosity, and the curiosity drives learning and systemic thinking, and the resulting understanding [will] drive action — to help each and everyone who interacts with the project to see how they can become a Nile citizen by using their skills to contribute to the Nile’s sustainability. [To become a Nile citizen], they can join our network and connect with other Nile citizens who are contributing to the cultural, political and environmental sustainability of the Nile. They can participate in our upcoming Nile Prize for food sustainability. Or they can contribute to one of our university programs.
If, as musicians, we have found our way to contribute by inspiring audiences, then I believe anyone can also find their own Nile Project, whether they are journalists, educators, engineers or techies.
Are there any positive results from the project to report yet? What is the ultimate goal?
Over the last three years, we have had three Nile Gatherings for musicians, 18 concerts and 15 university workshops in five Nile countries. It is not easy to isolate the impact that an initiative like Nile Project can have in a region as vast as the Nile Basin. But I can tell you that the project is resonating with a substantial group of people who have been searching for this kind of civic space to connect with their neighbors over a river they all consider to be essential to their lives.