The Nile Project Essay

From its debut concert, captured live on the 2013 release entitled ASWAN, it was clear that the Nile Project was something completely new. National Public Radio named the recording one of five “Must Hear International Albums.” Fast forward a few years — through tours in Africa, Europe, the US and UAE as well as two new CD releases — and almost all major media outlets agree that the Nile Project is much more than just a band. The New York Times described it as “a committed, euphoric international coalition.” Afropop Worldwide calls it “seductive and beautiful […] nothing short of revolutionary.”

One of the tightest cross-cultural collaborations in musical history, the Nile Project brings together artists from the 11 Nile countries, representing over 450 million people, to compose new songs that combine the rich diversity of one of the oldest places on Earth. Kindred harps and resonant lyres from the river’s sources in East Africa and Ethiopia to its deltas in Sudan and Egypt have reunited to learn new musical modes while buzzing timbres and ingenious polyrhythms support vocals in more than ten languages.

On the surface, the Nile Project blends traditional musical idioms into one seamless Nile sound. But look a little further and you’ll begin to see a 35-member musicians Collective modeling contemporary organizational concepts such as systems thinking, network theory, and participatory leadership. The Nile Project is pioneering a new approach to transform transboundary water conflicts by using music to ignite cross-cultural empathy and spark environmental curiosity. And its collaborative model offers a blueprint for new ways in which Nile citizens can organize themselves to strengthen the sustainability of their river. In an evolving series of interlocking programs that spring from the concert experience, the project works to inspire, educate and empower Nile citizens to collaborate on developing innovative solutions to the challenges at the root of their water conflict.

2015 US Premiere Tour:On January 9th 2015, 12 musicians from seven Nile Basin countries arrived in New York, for the beginning of an historic US tour. Never before had such a diverse group of East African musicians come to the US to engage university students and audiences through performance and workshops surrounding issues of sustainability in the Nile Basin and beyond. It was an ambitious undertaking. In four months, the Nile Project traveled over 20,000 miles, across 20 states, visiting 25 universities, with stops at the Lincoln Center and the United Nations. The Collective engaged over 30,000 people, working with a diverse array of partners, including student and community leaders, entrepreneurs, professors, Deans, scientists, lawyers, and everyday people—the change-makers of tomorrow.  Over 120 workshops, lecture-demonstrations, and panel discussions included topics such as civic engagement, resource management, gender and African identity in the region, the role of musicians in social movements, and leadership solutions. Through music workshops, master classes, and over 60 concerts, the tour demonstrated that the musical process is a blueprint for a new way to advocate for the Nile River and water sustainability worldwide.

"Jinja", the latest recording released by The Nile Project is a collection of songs created through the collaborative efforts of musicians from countries who depend on the Nile River as a source of fresh water.

At first glance, the idea of finding common ground between the various musical traditions and cultural backgrounds might seem difficult, if not impossible. Yet The Nile Project is not simply a musical ensemble, it is a cross-border initiative that aims to ensure the supply of fresh water to one of the most arid regions on earth.

As well as the music created by musicians to raise awareness about the region, the project also runs a university programme in co-operation with universities in Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, bringing students together to collaborate on solving Nile sustainability challenges.

One feature of the programme is a 12-month leadership course offered to 24 students, with the aim of helping them form Nile Project Clubs on their campuses, which in turn will foster the generation of ideas for developing  sustainability. Another feature of the university programme are the Nile Project Communities. Six communities are selected to work on local projects to develop food and water sustainability programmes.

A crucial resource

The main reason this project is so important has much to do with the Nile itself. Despite being one of the longest rivers in the world, it doesn't even make the top ten (eleventh) in terms of volume of water. With only 99,940 cubic metres crammed within its banks, it is unable to meet the demands of the people who depend on it for water. With populations continuing to grow, ways need to be developed that will make this already stretched resource go even further.

In order for there to be any hope of this happening, the countries dependent on the Nile will have to learn how to share; not only the resource, but the information and knowledge about how to best preserve it. Key to this will be countries and communities thinking beyond their own needs and learning about the concerns and worries of those not just adjacent to them, but those hundreds of kilometres away in a country they may never see.

This is where the musical aspect of The Nile Project comes into play. In order to change the current climate of low co-operation, disconnection and non-engagement among the citizens of the countries along the river, the project has developed a seven-stage process. Key to this is developing awareness and understanding of both the river itself and the people of the river. With music being an important element in the cultures of all of these countries, it is the ideal starting-point for building a common foundation.

Eclectic appeal

"Jinja" is both a musical tour through the regions of the Nile and an example of how cross-cultural co-operation can produce new and unique harmonies.

It also underlines the things musicians thousands of miles apart have in common – instruments, modes of expression – while never once forcing any one sound to be subjacent to another.

We hear lead singers from Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi singing songs from their native countries against instrumental backing not normally associated with them, yet which somehow sounds just right.

With tracks such as "Ya Abai Wuha" from Ethiopia, "Omwiga" from Uganda, "Uruza Nil" from Burundi and "Dil Mahbuby" from Egypt following one after the other (numbers three to six incl. on the recording), the diverse character of the various regions really stands out.

While these songs are impressive for the depth and texture of their sound and presentation and the sheer joy they bring to the listener, the real highlights of the album are where the musicians have entered uncharted waters and created songs unique to the ensemble.

Fittingly, the opening track of the disc, "Inganji" incorporates each of the musicians, taking us on a musical journey from one country to the next. It flows with the same inexorable power as the Nile itself, transporting us from Rwanda to Egypt, absorbing the flavours and textures of each people and place along the way. While songs like "Allah Baqy" – a love song that contrasts Egyptian and Sudanese Arabic dialects – and "Mulunge Munage" demonstrate the musical links between neighbours Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, perhaps the most compelling song on the recording is the seventh, "Tenseo".

Transcending boundaries

The song begins with a hymn often sung during Good Friday services in the Ethiopian Orthodox church and then develops into a combination of Ethiopian jazz and Arabic taqsim (improvisation). The sound of the saxophone and the oud exchanging improvisational solos backed up by the steady beat of percussion is stunning. 

When the song concludes by coming full circle to incorporate the flute and vocals – the focus of the opening – it will send chills up your spine. This song is the quintessence of the album's objective: it crosses all boundaries – religious, cultural and musical – to create something beautiful.

Musicians from The Nile Project have been touring Africa, North America and Europe for a number of years now, giving concerts, leading workshops and spreading their message of hope and change. "Jinja" is their second album and also heralds the beginning of another extended tour of the US. If the music on this album is indicative of what the future holds for the Nile, then there really is reason to hope.

Richard Marcus

© Qantara.de 2017

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