The Nile Project sounds like a natural unit—timbres balanced and songs carefully arranged—you can easily forget what a strange union this is, that is until you watch them tune. That’s when Kasiva Mutua, a percussionist from Kenya, starts pouring water on her drum skins to lower the tone while Mohamed Abo Zekry presses his ear to the body of his oud so he can match the tuning of the paired strings. The Ethiopian saxophonist twists his mouthpiece and Steven Sogo of Burundi adjusts the wooden pegs that shift the pitch of the umuduri—a single metal string on a bow affixed with resonating gourds. It is quite a sight, and it reminds you that this isn’t just any band. Founded by Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero, The Nile Project is a collaboration of musicians from around the Nile River Basin that aims to promote dialogue about water politics through performance and education. Just getting their instruments in tune is the first step in that conversation, one that the group’s founders hope will continue beyond the concert hall.
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As the show begins I am struck by the lack of ego on stage, each player contributing just enough sound and personality to fill out the texture and no more. With twelve people from seven countries sharing a stage, that is no small feat, and in a way, this is what is most impressive about the Nile Project—not the fact that they can bring together an oud virtuoso and a Burundian singer—but that both those people can leave enough sonic space for us to appreciate the other. With each member coming forward to lead a different song, the concert at times feels like a variety show of styles from the region. This format plays perfectly to the ‘world music’ appetite of an American audience—the fact is that most listeners can’t sit through an entire evening of Egyptian classical music—but it also highlights the diversity of the region. Spanning as it does the Mediterranean world and the Great Lakes of East Africa, the Nile Basin defies any and all generalizations of what ‘African Music’ might be. It also ignores the assumed divide between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, and not simply by their resident’s co-presence on stage. The Nile Project musicians have taken the time to learn each other’s styles, and even each other’s instruments: Hani Bedair, the Egyptian percussionist will slide over at times to play Ugandan hand drums and Sophie Nzayisenga has a special Rwandan harp tuned for playing in the Ethiopian modal system.
I have to admit that when I first saw the group I was a little skeptical of its idealistic message and sweeping musical fusion. But I quickly realized that this isn’t the kind of surface level fusion that starts with a question of: “wouldn’t it be cool if we combined x and y?” The Nile Project begins with a geographic fact: a river that touches eleven countries on its journey to the sea. That reality offers not only a historical basis for collaboration, but also a social imperative for cooperation: several of these countries are engaged in disputes over water issues. The Nile Project’s founders don’t claim that they will resolve these conflicts through music alone, but they see real value in the sharing of songs and stages as an opening for a broader exchange. That I can believe, especially after watching the group’s rich and joyful performance. When one of the founders, Maklit Hadero of Ethiopia, addresses the audience before a song, she asks: “Can you tell how much we enjoy each other?” Then she adds—as if there is any doubt—“its real.”