The Nile Project is more than a mere performing ensemble. The cross-cultural collective brings together musicians from the 11 countries that the titular, 6,800km African waterway flows through.
But while The Nile Project’s music is brave, diverse, and fascinating – the group’s mission statement is about far more than creating aesthetically pleasing sounds. Alongside performing concerts across Africa and the United States, the project – a revolving collective of more than 30 musicians – tours universities, hosting workshops that address everything from ethnic identity to development issues and geopolitical strife. As much education initiative as entertainment endeavour, the initiative hopes to break down boundaries, inspire dialogue and change lives.
The Nile Project is led by president and chief executive Mina Girgis, a US-based, Egypt-raised ethnic musicologist. He says the project was inspired following the revolution that gripped his home country in 2011.
“I went back to Egypt and I was really searching for something I could do that would allow me to participate in that change; something to do with my background in music,” he says.
It was only after hearing 12-piece Ethio-funk outfit Debo Band, in California, that the idea sparked to use music to address the continent’s political divisions.
“I had heard Ethiopian music before, but I had never heard anything like this inside Egypt – but I could hear it in San Francisco,” remembers the 39-year-old. “I thought just bringing Ethiopian music to Egypt would already begin to make a big difference.”
Amid growing water scarcity concerns, the Nile’s water rights – which are shared from Lake Victoria to the Egyptian delta – became a symbolic inspiration, both musically and politically.
“We wanted to use music to address hydro-diplomacy concerns, before it became a flashpoint,” he says. “Music is a very soft tool, but it can be very potent. This issue is identify based – you wouldn’t fight your cousin for water.”
In January 2013, Girgris and his co-founders gathered 18 musicians from six countries in the Nile basin, together in the Egyptian riverside city Aswan. The musicians were encouraged to interact and compose, and after two weeks, The Nile Project performed for the first time, a concert that captured on the debut release, Aswan.
The group’s traditionally informed, original compositions grew from collective composition sessions. The band’s ethos is “participatory leadership”, giving everyone’s ideas equal weight. Onstage, the bandleader – and subsequent geographical backbone of the material – shifts throughout the evening. “Everybody feels this is their band,” adds Girgis. “It’s a powerful way to feel ownership of the music,”
Subsequent concerts and university residencies have invited more musicians into the fold, with 32 different players currently listed as members of the collective.
The stage at New York University Abu Dhabi will welcome a total of 12 musicians from six countries. Driven by a pan-Nile percussion section, listeners can expect to hear instruments including an Ethiopian masenko (single-stringed bowed lute), Egyptian ney (end-blown flute), Arabian oud, Ugandan adungu (arched harp) and simsimiyya (plucked lyre), alongside violin, bass guitar and saxophone.
“Taking part in The Nile Project is a very creative experience,” adds Girgis.
“We give the musicians as much information as possible about the musical traditions of the other countries, and they take this back to their own countries, and spread that inspiration.”
• The Nile Project show is at The Arts Centre, NYUAD, Saadiyat Island, Thursday October 29. The show is full, but a limited number of free standby tickets will be made available on the door