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Nile Project Merges Art and Education

Leah Lavigne

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On Thursday, April 2, the Nile Project’s four-day residency at the College culminated in an engaging, energetic and participatory concert extravaganza that combined education and performance to increase interest in the issues facing the Nile River Basin.

Conceived in 2011 by Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero, the Nile Project blends sounds from the 11 countries in the Nile Basin – Egypt, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo – to produce music showcasing the diverse range of instruments, languages and traditions in the region while educating an international network of university students about the unique challenges facing the Nile ecosystem.

Rwandan musician Sophie Nzayisenga began the show alone with the inganga, a traditional instrument carved from a single piece of wood featuring six to eight strings. From the moment she began playing, her confident stage presence, brilliant yellow dress and clear, powerful voice captivated the audience, creating a silent, buzzing energy that soon spilled onto the dance floor when the other musicians joined her on stage one by one, each wearing clothing or carrying an instrument representing his or her cultural background. As instruments, voices and cultures collided, the energy of the first song quickly escalated with the deft layering of percussion, vocals and encouragement of audience participation.

I will admit, before the show I had glanced at the cheerful “Come ready to dance!” printed on my ticket with a fair amount of skepticism and exhaustion from the week, thinking defiantly – and stubbornly – that I would not be moved from my seat no matter how exciting the events of the evening proved to be.

Almost immediately after all of the musicians gathered on stage during the first song, students began filling the section cordoned off for dancing, bodies quickly twirling and intertwining in the vibrant glow emanating from the bright colors and sounds on the Wilson Hall stage. As the steady migration from seats to the dance floor increased with each song, it was impossible not to view the growing mass of individuals from all walks of student and community life as an intended, remarkable component of the performance.

I do not know if it was the throbbing bass beat of the drums, the engaging musicianship and interactive performance of the individuals on stage or the carefree joy splashed across the faces of the dancers in the crowd, but something – especially in the aftermath of the traumatic news communicated in an all campus email only hours before – moved me to grab a friend, join the throng and participate in the exuberant celebration.

This continual engagement with the audience was executed with particular ease by Burundi’s leading bassist Steven Sogo, whose instrumental prowess, natural performance energy and invitations to sing and dance with him frequently propelled the buzz in the room to another level.

Sudanese singer Alsarah and Egyptian vocalist Dina El Wididi’s duet, which poked fun at the differences in Arabic pronunciation in Sudan and Egypt, perfectly encapsulated the energy of the night – cultures collided in a song providing both education and entertainment as two extremely talented vocalists crafted their gifts to communicate a larger message.

“We are looking for musicians who are traditionally rooted and play instruments that represent and are relevant to their respective cultures,” Nile Project co-founder Mina Girgis said. “We are also looking for the flexibility to listen and learn, and to adapt their instruments and their musical performance to the traditions that they’re in dialogue with. Equally important is finding artists that are interested in this conversation that we’re sparking – this idea of how music can facilitate a dialogue around water.”

The 437 million inhabitants along the basin of the 4,145-mile long Nile River are projected to double in population over the next forty years, increasing an already strained demand for water that is essential to food production, electricity and proper medical care. Today, seven of the 11 Nile countries suffer from undernourishment rates over 30 percent, and less than ten percent of basin residents have access to electricity, sparking a geopolitical conflict over allocation of the precious resource to countries with varying priorities and basic needs.

At its core, the Nile Project aims to empower and mobilize the Nile’s citizens to engage in cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration to address political, environmental, economic and social challenges faced by all 11 nations.

“It was primarily because of the water conflicts that we wanted to engage Nile citizens living in these countries in the watershed,” co-founder Mina Girgis said. “That’s really where the bulk of our work is. We act as a bridge across different countries in the Nile Basin.”

Following an inaugural Nile Gathering  in Aswan, Egpyt, which encouraged participant experimentation to innovate constructive solutions to the vast array of challenges facing the area, 18 musicians from the Nile Basin translated this multifaceted dialogue into a body of songs representing the range of traditions and instruments in the region. The performance of these songs in their first-ever live concert in January 2013 was recorded and produced as their first album, Aswan.

Two more Nile Gatherings have followed, one in Kampala, Uganda in early 2014, and the other in Minya, Egypt in November 2014, and the songs from these collaborative sessions featured prominently in the collective’s 2014 Africa tour and in their current United States tour, which started in New York City in January and will end in May at Princeton University.

“This tour was a question of also engaging university students in the United States to contribute to the discussion about the Nile even though they don’t live in the Nile Basin,” Girgis said. “College students are the future. They are the ones that are going to live to see the fruit of current labors and they are also going to pay the price of the way we’re working with our environment right now. In a way they are and should be the most invested in the sustainability of the Nile Basin, whether that is environmental or cultural sustainability among the relationships of these different countries.”

Using music to raise awareness for the Nile’s sustainability challenges, the collective offered four days of residency activities in musical collaboration as well as in dialogue and education programs, including workshops, a keynote talk and class visits to offer context for the high-energy concert on Thursday night.

Dartmouth College first notified New England universities and colleges about the opportunity to collaborate to obtain a New England Foundation of the Arts grant to bring the Nile Project to the region, and it is through this grant that the College joined to help produce the month-long New England segment of the tour.

In a short break between songs at the beginning of the second half of the concert, co-founder of the Nile Project Meklit Hadero spoke to her realization that the water forming melting patches of snow on the College’s campus could very well have evaporated from the Nile and fallen as precipitation in the mountains of Vermont.

Indeed, the incredible power of the music and message to attract and unite those from a wide range of ages, cultural backgrounds and levels of knowledge about the struggles facing the millions depending on Nile River water for survival, speaks to this undeniable ecological and human interconnectivity between continents and cultures which may at first appear to have little in common.

The Nile Project recently launched a crowdfunding campaign for their second album, Jinja, which will be a culmination of the music composed and performed on their United States tour. After their current tour ends in May, the Nile Project looks forward to launching a fellowship program for students from five different universities in the Nile Basin to mobilize student leaders who, through non-profit chapters established on their campuses, will build a transnational network of youths focusing on the cultural, social and environmental challenges facing the Nile.

“This year into the next we will be launching our first Nile Prize in sustainability, and the following year we will hopefully be launching our Nile Tour, which is a traveling semester where both students from the Nile Basin and the U.S. will sail up the Nile and perform along the way and engage with local communities,” Girgis said.

Over the two and a half hours of high-energy performance and consummate musicianship showcasing the linguistic and stylistic diversity of the Nile Basin, the 13 musicians in the Nile Project provided an evening of entertainment and education that engaged members of every section of the student and larger campus community, proving the unique power of music to unite, inspire and spark inner reflection that can lead to innovation and creativity.

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Nile Project Merges Art and Education