The Nile Project was conceived over a few beers at an Uptown Oakland café by two Bay Area locals: ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis from Egypt, and Meklit Hadero from Ethiopia. The vision served a dual purpose: to promote the importance of sustainable water in countries relying on the river Nile and to marry the disparities between various African musical identities into one, harmonious performance.
On February 19, The Nile Project was presented by Cal Performances on its historic first U.S tour. The 13-piece band composed of musicians representing eleven countries of the Nile Basin. More than a dozen instrumentalists and vocalists from Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Uganda collaborated to use the power of music to raise awareness of the cultural and environmental challenges along the world’s longest river. Every song was graced with sounds of Africa: from a subdued and yet powerful Egyptian flute to an upbeat bongo rhythm from the wilderness of Kenya.
Historically and geographically, northern Africa is drastically different from even its closest southern neighbors. From religion to creed, the stark difference between entire countries with contingent environments is felt through their music. It was beautiful to witness the marriage between different cultural identities.
South Sudan and Ethiopia are good examples—countries which share borders and yet have very different philosophies and musical instruments. In terms of music, one may even feel that transitioning between the countries evokes a similar emotion to changing continents. It is for this reason that The Nile Project achieved a beautiful unification. Musicians and vocalists clad in colorful garments of each country, indigenous instruments resonating images of African environments, and songs dedicated to fostering trans-African friendships, defined the night. Musicians took turns introducing their own unique songs, along with lessons on their national instruments. Instruments such as the oud, kawala, inanga, krar and umuduri represented the multitudinous modes and dimensions of music surrounding Africa’s longest and arguably, most important river.
We took our seats among a relatively older audience. Most members of the audience seemed to be older than sixty and remained in their seats for most of the precession with the occasional visceral motions. Their bodies were telling them to dance. Watching the musicians was beautiful, but it was only when two middle-aged gentlemen took to their respective aisles and began to dance right in front that the music began to be felt. Their bodies were swaying like grass in the plains. Limbs echoed with the music, and for moments on end, you could tell they were in a euphoric state.
From that moment on, the experience changed. The musicians mustered the confidence and comfort to engage in a sing-along with the audience. Reminiscent of a Bobby McFerrin experiment, the audience gradually began to become one with The Nile Project.
The iconic and historic moment came full circle during the penultimate song, when the musicians asked for the audience to stand and dance. People filled the aisles, pouring down towards the front. The roaring river of ecstasy and longevity grew in support, and by the end of it the first three rows became packed with participants. For that moment, our ages were one, each individual became a particle dancing with peaceful cosmic intentions. Through music, The Nile Project succeeded in tapping into a phenomenon entire conquests and ideologies preceding them had failed to do—the togetherness of humanity.
Article by Nikos Zarikos