The Nile Project Comes to Chico
By Phil Reser
Photo courtesy of The Nile Project
According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth and climate change.
The Nile is the longest river in the world, and the 11 African nations through which it flows are home to some of the world’s oldest cultures. Over many millennia, the reliable seasonal flow and overflow of the Nile has allowed farmers to produce grains and other crops that sustain those living in deserts well beyond the Nile.
Without its waters, the most downstream of those nations, Egypt, is a barren desert. So when in 2011, Ethiopia began to build a giant hydroelectric dam across the river’s largest tributary, the Blue Nile, it looked like Egypt might carry out its long-standing threat to go to war to protect its lifeline.
As the eyes of the world gazed upon this struggle, two San Francisco-based East Africans, Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and his friend, Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero, began to collaborate on a plan to create a project that would bring musicians together from all the countries physically connected to the river. They also aimed to use the traditional musical styles of the Nile region to create a participatory, transboundary culture that reflects the cultural richness of its nations and would empower its members to protect the Nile’s ecosystems.
Now working as the collective’s executive director, Girgis says, “For me, the connection was the Nile. It’s a river. It’s an organism made of 437 million people, 11 countries, some of the poorest in the world. Our work began by getting these musicians to start working together in small groups, two people, three people at a time, to develop ways where they can combine their modal and rhythmic systems.”
Next, they focused on simple musical ideas, and that process grew into the Nile Project ensemble. “At that point, the entire collective comes together with their instruments and vocal styles differing in tone, pitch and rhythm,” Girgis says. “Sudanese harps joined with Kenyan kettle drums while Ethiopian violins played beside Burundian thumb pianos and Egyptian flutes. It really is a school for musicians from all the Nile countries. The Egyptians learned polyrhythms from Uganda. The Ugandans learned the maqam system (a set of ornamented musical scales) from Egypt. Everybody started exchanging musical traditions and understandings.”
The Nile Project has developed into a powerful pan-Nile percussion section that drives this orchestra of Ethiopian masenko (single-stringed bowed lute), saxophone, Egyptian ney (end-blown flute), oud (pear-shaped, lute-like stringed instrument), violin, simsimiyya (plucked lyre), tanbura (long-necked stringed instrument), Ugandan adungu (arched harp), bass guitar and vocalists singing in almost a dozen languages.
There are no band leaders in the group. Everyone contributes with his or her own cultural imprint to create a cross-pollination of diversity. This diversity takes center stage when you take into account not only the different languages being used in song, but the variety of instruments on stage at any given time.
Says Girgis, “Listening first to music, and then to people you once believed were strangers or adversaries can move the needle toward calm in potential conflict situations. Before tension erupts into violence, there is a moment when communication can shift the discussion in a crucial way. What happens among a diverse group of musicians on stage, the give and take within a composition, the attentive listening, the mutual support, suggests other modes of interaction to audience members. It’s a blueprint for what’s possible, outside of the concert venue.”
Since its inception five years ago, the Nile Project has toured Africa, Europe, the United States and the the United Arab Emirates, attracting more than 60,000 people to its concerts to date.
Currently, 13 Nile Project artists from seven Nile Basin countries have returned to the United States for a second tour, which includes performing live concerts and holding workshops in 23 different cities across 14 states. While here, the collective is celebrating the release of its second album, “Jinja,” having garnered critical acclaim from the release of its inaugural album, “Aswan,” in 2013.
The Nile Project
Sunday, February 19
Laxson Auditorium, Chico State University