The Nile Project hopes to bring countries — and cultures — of the Nile Basin together through music.
By Campbell MacDiarmid
Photography courtesy of the Nile Project
Thousands of Egyptians danced to the beat of a different drum in March during a series of concerts performed by the Nile Project, a group of musicians from Nile Basin countries who came together to explore the region’s shared musical roots. Using the instruments of the Nile Basin, the musicians explored their shared musical heritage, composing a body of songs inspired by the Nile. At the heart of the Nile’s musical identity is the plucked harp and spike fiddle, versions of which are found in all Nile Basin countries. But when Egyptian heptatonic modes meet Ethiopian pentatonic scales, things get interesting. When the Egyptian nay or flute plays alongside Ethiopian saxophone and Rwandan inanga, a kind of harp which resembles a surfboard, the result is original music that reveals its diverse but connected roots.
Since forming in 2011, the group has performed in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt. The group’s first album “Aswan” was listed by NPR Music as one of “five must-hear international albums” in 2013 and named by Songlines magazine as one of the 10 best new releases in its “Top of the World” editor’s choice selection in January. The BBC Radio 3 World Routes program has produced a two-hour radio program on the Nile Project. Perhaps most impressive to an Egyptian audience was the performance on the Bassem Youssef show in March, which raised the project’s profile locally, bumping its Facebook fans close to 50,000.
These successes are secondary to the Nile Project’s primary aim though, says Egyptian ethnomusicologist and project founder Mina Girgis. More than just a music concept, the Nile Project aims to start a conversation about sustainable management of the world’s longest river. By bringing together musicians from Nile Basin countries, the initiative hopes it can generate a grassroots movement for citizens to find common ground aside from the discourse of division that characterizes interstate Nile Basin relations.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of such an endeavor. The river, which links the 11 Nile Basin states, offers huge potential for development, but is also the source of potential conflict. An estimated 437 million people live in Nile Basin countries, and some 200 million of them rely directly or indirectly on the Nile for food security. The population of the Nile Basin is projected to grow to 600 million by 2025, placing increasing demands on Nile water.
Already Egypt, which relies on the Nile for over 90 percent of its water needs, has a water deficit and is extremely concerned with protecting its water share. Meanwhile upstream riparian governments increasingly demand a more equitable use of Nile water resources, arguing that the current division of Nile water between Egypt and Sudan denies development opportunities to upstream states.
In the past year the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a 1.8 kilometer dam across the Blue Nile river, which supplies the Nile with 85 percent of its water, raised tensions between Egypt and upstream neighbor Ethiopia close to breaking point. While the two countries have engaged in negotiations over the dam, public pronouncements have raised the possibility of going to war.
Such threats are counterproductive and dangerous, says Girgis. “The discourse that is happening is a discourse of mistrust, assuming that you’re not going to act in the best interest, that you will take advantage of any vulnerability,” he says. “War is a possibility. That doesn’t mean it’s a solution.”
Instead, he envisages a collaborative approach to managing the region’s shared water resources, pointing out that the GERD has the possibility to benefit the entire region if it is managed cooperatively. Energy-hungry Egypt could import cheap hydro power. Storing Nile water in the highlands of Ethiopia rather than in the desert climate of Lake Nasser could also reduce evaporation by up to four billion cubic meters annually. “If Egypt were one country with Ethiopia, they would put the dam where GERD is, and they would forget about the Aswan dam,” says Ana Cascão, an authority on the hydropolitics of the Nile Basin at the Stockholm International Water Institute. However mutual mistrust means that the two countries have so far been unable to reach an agreement on shared management of the dam.
Other proposals for developing the Nile would require even greater levels of interstate cooperation. The Jonglei Canal, which aimed to bypass the Sudd wetlands in Sudan, in which much of the White Nile evaporates before ever reaching Egypt, was one such planned mega-project. Construction of the planned 360 kilometer canal began in 1978 but was halted in 1984 by conflict in Sudan, fueled partly by fears that draining the wetlands would threaten the way of life of the residents. In 2008, Sudan and Egypt agreed to restart the project but construction is yet to resume.
While previous state level attempts at interstate coordination have floundered, ordinary people are ready to take on initiatives to find solutions, Girgis believes. “They’re exhausted by these empty geopolitical arguments that we know will not solve any problems,” he says. “We’re working on an answer, we’re working in a different direction.”
The project offers a space for citizens to engage in a discussion about Nile Basin issues. The audience at Nile Project concerts is invited afterwards to attend workshops to discuss sustainable management of the Nile Basin. Later this year the project plans to launch a Nile Prize, to promote food sustainability and “support Nile Basin university students in the design and implementation of local solutions based on principles of sustainable, community-centered design.”
Beyond performing, the musicians have relished the opportunity to engage with their audience. “I’m excited to bring the conversation away from the politicians and to the people,” says Ethiopian saxophone player Jorga Mesfin.
Moreover, music offers a template for how the discourse might be changed from combative to cooperative. “Music is a great place for other disciplines to learn how to come and listen,” Mesfin says. “Most disciplines are based on arguments, and theses and proving. Music does not have that agenda.” When people are intent on proving each other wrong, “it makes me want to go home and practice my instrument,” he says. “If people have trust issues and other agendas, they’re not listening. But you can’t listen to music like that, it hits you differently.”
The first Nile Project residency in Aswan in January 2013 brought together 18 musicians from Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda. Egyptian singer Dinah El Wadidi faced the challenge of learning music in a pentatonic mode, which has five notes and is typical of Ethiopian music, rather than the seven notes of the heptatonic scale she was familiar with. When the 14 musicians from Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Uganda assembled in Kampala for the second residency this year, El Wadidi worked with Ethiopian vocalist Selamnesh Zemene to compose a song combining the Egyptian heptatonic modes and the Ethiopian pentatonic modes. “You could superimpose them on top of each other,” she says.
Girgis sees in this as an analogy for how people’s different worldviews shape their perspective. “It’s a metaphor for two different realities,” he says. “We might be seeing something very similar but from very different perspectives.”
“That level of empathetic listening and collaboration is really what we need,” he says. “What we’re doing among musicians is something the world could learn from.”
Many of the Nile Project’s fans agree. “After decades of bad foreign policy on the part of Egypt toward other Nile Basin countries, it’s amazing to see musicians taking action and calling for peace and understanding among us,” says Manar Mohsen, a social worker who attended the Nile Project concert in Cairo’s Al Azhar park on March 5 March. “The concert was a great way to build bridges.”
The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Egypt also saw the Nile Project as worthy of support. Director Romain Darbellay says with relationships between governments strained, civil society initiatives like the Nile Project are important. By exploring the shared musical heritage of the Nile Basin, citizens may discover that they have more in common than they realized, he says. “Simply listening to the music of the Nile Project it’s quite obvious the link is there.”
But not everyone agrees. One source at the Foreign Ministry who asked to remain anonymous voiced that while, “It’s encouraging to see and it’s a step in the right direction to bring people closer together, the issue is more than lack of trust. There are fundamental differences that need to be addressed and no amount of cultural events and projects will change that.”
Still, Girgis hopes that over time the Nile Project will succeed in changing attitudes about the Nile and that these changes will lead to changes in behavior. “We’ll encourage a small minority of people who want to go there,” he says. “That small minority will grow until it becomes mainstream and everyone will be like, ‘OK, we get it now’.”
Saxophonist Mesfin recounts the challenge faced by Ugandan musicians Lawrence Okello and Michael Bazibu at the first Nile Project residency as they tried to play an Egyptian scale on the marimba, a kind of xylophone. “What it took for them to tune it was they had to take machetes and hack away at the instruments,” he says. “That kind of sent a message. To create unity, unless you’re willing to drop some stuff, you can’t win, you can’t tune with each other.
“I wrote a song called ‘Sacrifice’ based on that.” et