“For thousands of years Egyptian farmers irrigated by simple diversions from the Nile and nothing went badly wrong;” writes American environmentalist Marc Reisner in his best-known work Cadillac Desert (1986). “Then Egypt built the Aswan High Dam and got waterlogged land, salinity, schistosomiasis, nutrient-starved fields, a dying Mediterranean fishery, and a bill for all of the above that will easily eclipse the value of the irrigation ‘miracle’ wrought by the dam.”
It would seem, as his book argues, the American West has much to learn from the Nile countries’ trials. This theme of sustainability, both environmentally and culturally, provides the basis of The Nile Project, a music collective founded in Oakland by ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero.
Bringing together artists from all 11 countries through which the Nile River flows, The Nile Project literally propels conflicts along the world’s longest river into the spotlight, through music and performance. Their first US tour is an extensive one that includes a stop at our very own Cal Performances on February 19.
Apart from the live concert Thursday, the collective has a series of scheduled events on and off campus Wednesday through Friday, including a water resource management discussion February 18 at Freight & Salvage during lunch hour, and a full afternoon and evening’s worth of programming at the Magnes Collection February 20. The residency culminates Friday night with a culinary exploration of the Nile Region and an community music-making session.
As for the music, don’t be fooled: The Nile Project’s not a drum circle or a kumbaya, says Mina Girgis in a video with Cal Performances, it’s something more musically interesting. “It’s a university project, because a lot of it is intellectual.” Its discourse and music spans significant geography, highlighting a parallel between the arts and the concept of sustainability — both are exquisitely boundless abstracts with high potential for grassroots realization.
“We picked some of the most virtuosic musicians we met. The [first] experience was a turning point. We asked all the musicians to lead musical workshops, to expose the other musicians to what their traditions look like. So you had the Ugandans on the first day teach the other musicians about polyrhythms from Uganda. You had the musicians from Egypt teach about maqam and microtonal music. […] it brought everyone back to kindergarten.”
Efforts like these; of concurrent, multidisciplinary, and experiential learning — efforts Cal Performances recently committed to providing in their announcement of new initiative Berkeley RADICAL — we have much to gain from. They help us re-evaluate situations, re-ignite action, and re-envision change.
Just imagine what we could do by graduation.
Article by Joanna Jiang