The Nile Project
How Africa’s most original fusion project is fostering cross-cultural curiosity along the Nile through music
During an Egyptian cabinet meeting on June 3, 2013, several cabinet members – apparently unaware that the meeting was being broadcast live on TV – advised the now former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi that the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project should be sabotaged. The meeting was a response to Ethiopia’s unannounced diversion of the Blue Nile a few day’s earlier as part of the dam project. At the meeting in Cairo, Younis Makhyoun, leader of the ultraconservative Islamist Nour party, said Egypt should consider backing rebels in Ethiopia or, as a last resort, destroy the dam. Makhyoun elaborated that Ethiopia was “fragile” because of rebel movements inside the country and that Egypt could communicate with them and use them as a bargaining chip against the Ethiopian government. “If all this fails, then there is no choice left for Egypt but to play the final card, which is using the intelligence service to destroy the dam,” Makhyoun recommended. A week later in a speech in Cairo, Morsi said that: “We will defend each drop of the Nile with our blood,” which further fueled the diplomatic crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia and led to widespread speculations that a Northeast African ’’water war’’ was on its way.
Around 60 % of the Nile’s waters flow downstream from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, through Sudan, to Egypt. The recent confrontations are only the latest in a long history of frictions and conflicts among the countries of the Nile Basin stemming from an Egyptian zero-sum attitude that only Egypt can be trusted with the waters of the Nile. This notion led Egypt to invade Sudan in 1821 and to occupy eastern Ethiopia in 1875 and the 1959 Nile Waters Agreements were guided by the same paradigm, with all the water essentially given to the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan at the expense of Ethiopia and other upstream countries including Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
Since the summer of 2013, tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia have slightly cooled. Meanwhile, the construction of what will be Africa’s largest hydropower dam has continued and is now 30% completed according to the Ethiopian government. In late November last year, the Egyptian interim president, Adly Mansour, and Ethiopia’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, met for the first time to discuss the dam project, and while that meeting and as well as more recent meetings between the parties have ended without an agreement, both countries now seem to have settled on the diplomatic path to try and solve the issues.
While the geo-political tensions along the Nile have been running high, a group of musicians and ethnomusicologists have pursued an alternative path for dialogue among the 437 million citizens of the 11 countries sharing the Nile. Started in 2011 by the Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero, the Nile Project curates collaborations among musicians from the Nile countries to expose audiences to the cultures of their river neighbors. In January 2013, the Nile Project organized its first Nile Gathering in Aswan, Egypt, and later last year the project’s first album, Aswan, was released.
A week ago, the second Nile Gathering began in Kampala, Uganda, involving 14 musicians from Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda who collaboratively will be composing new songs inspired by the Nile Basin’s diverse musical traditions and instruments. The meeting will continue through the two first weeks of February and will then be followed by the Nile Project’s first East Africa tour with concerts planned in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt in February and March 2014 as well as the release of the Nile Project’s second album, Jinja.
The ambitious project, however, is not limited to music endeavors. The Nile Project is planning to roll out university-based dialogue and education programs that build on the musical inspiration to help students understand Nile-related development challenges in a more systemic way. Multidisciplinary online courses, Nile choirs, student exchange programs, TEDxNile, an annual short film festival and a Nile Prize are other tools that the project is planning to start using in order to foster cross-cultural empathy and inspire environmental curiosity among Nile citizens.
I recently got the opportunity to chat with Mina and Meklit while they were in San Francisco preparing for the Kampala gathering, and I asked them what made them launch the Nile Project. ‘’When you live in Egypt, Ethiopia or Kenya you are led to believe that you have nothing in common with your neighbors other than the fact that they are African. While we did not start the Nile Project because of the water resource conflict but because we shared a curiosity about each other’s music, many of us had not really seen the necessity of realizing how much we share before the recent conflict,’’ Mina explained, while Meklit highlighted the links between their initiative and the Pan-Africanism of the African independence movement: ‘’With the end of the African independence struggle, the relevance of Pan-Africanism also faded. Now we see that while the Nile Basin is basis of political tensions there is also a different possibility of reaching out to each other in a ‘Pan-East-African’ way that is relevant to all of us.’’
Asked about their approach in reaching out to musicians in East Africa, both Mina and Meklit stressed how their cultural curiosity was echoed by the musicians they encountered during a scout trip across East Africa in 2012. Through their networks in various East African countries, word of mouth and research, they came across musicians (one of them being Alsarah who we have previously featured on Addis Rumble) who all shared an interest in exploring if there was such a thing as an East African sound and who were later invited for January 2013 residency in Aswan.
The Nile Project is far from the first African musical fusion initiative out there and I asked them how they saw their venture as standing out from the pack. ‘’In many fusion projects you have one person’s tradition holding down the structure with another tradition soloing or improvising over it, which to me is a superficial exchange,’’ Meklit told me and she underlined how they purposely designed the 2-week Nile Gathering in Aswan in a very different way. The first days consisted of seminars with musicians from the represented countries, first the Ugandans, then the Ethiopians, the Nubians, the Egyptians, the Kenyans etc. The musicians then started working in pairs, later trios and finally in groups of 5-6 musicians who performed their compositions at mini concert. On this basis, the group collectively selected the songs they wanted to continue working on, co-arranged them during a few hectic days before the songs were then performed at the big concert in Aswan that later became the Aswan live album. ‘’A constant process of discovery of personal and cultural relationships,’’ is how Meklit summarized the experience in Aswan.
Looking ahead to this year’s gathering in Kampala, Mina described how the approach and structure of the workshop this time would be even more experimental and collaborative. At the pilot gathering in Aswan, a lot of efforts were put into maximizing the product (the concert and album) and the musicians had been asked in advance to bring two pieces of music to the residency. Now Mina sees the music they created in Aswan as having validated the ideas behind the Nile Project, and he is thus now looking forward to making the music sound even more like one Nile Basin (rather than a Sudanese song, a Ugandan song etc.).
When I asked about what to expect from the Nile Project after the Kamala gathering, Mina clearly stressed the need for the project to demonstrate concrete effects on the ground and outlined how they were planning to achieve this: ‘’In Aswan we wanted to pilot that music can have the impact we envisioned in terms of creating cross-cultural curiosity and empathy and getting people to open up and learn from their Nile neighbors. Now the next step is for us to show a tangible impact. That is why the gathering in Kampala and the East Africa tour will be accompanied by workshops at universities, online dialogues and the launch of the Nile Prize,’’ he explained. I rounded up the conversation asking Mina and Meklit if they saw the Nile Project eventually moving beyond having music as the primary remedy to foster collaboration. ‘’No’’, they both replied while at the same time assuring me that there were many other Nile Projects available out there waiting to be launched by other entrepreneurs.
Nile Project members rehearsing in Kampala, 31 January, 2014.
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