The Nile Projects: Using music as a tool to rethink watersheds and cultivate sustainability
The stage was dark at Northrop Hall. Then it started. Sophie Nzayisenga from Rwanda is as a queen, a spirit—animate—enticing us in. She and the inanga instrument sang together. The music took over the hall, filling us up. She would look up towards us every so often as if saying, “Come on. Feel the joy.” And then back the task at hand—bring the spirit into the concert hall and a smile would overtake her face and she would be back into the music.
More musicians had entered at this time. Each had a distinct way of moving, being, and playing. They wore things from T-shirt and jeans to kanga. What they had in common? They were amazing musicians and all part of the Nile Project.
“You are in for a big journey tonight. We will go all over the Nile.” said Ugandan musician Micheal Bazibu.
The Nile Project was founded in 2011 by Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero to address the Nile Basin’s cultural and environmental challenges at the core of deep conflict between people and people, people and the environment, and sustainability in the past, present, and future.
Since then, the Nile Project has gathered musicians from up and down the Nile River to come together and cultivate the sustainability of their ecosystem. “We need to rethink how we see our water and our ecosystems,” said President Mina Girgis at intermission. “Before being here, we were just traveling in California, where many of the issues are similar to what is happening right now in the Nile Basin. We are not alone. It is something we all need to think about.”
So how do music and sustainability mix?
- Redefine borders based on ecological boundaries. The project gives new meaning to water by transcending national boundaries which represent a political memory that often creates divisions between people. By redefining boundaries, people can gather together to focus on a river spanning multiple nations, languages, and cultures. For example, Dina El Wedidi(Egypt) and Alsarah (Sudan) got into an accent “war” on stage arguing about how to say the song titled Gharib Ley in Arabic from their different places. Their performance highlighted the deep tensions present in the area. But the laughing actions and song lyrics tell a different story “Break down the barriers, rise to me.”
- Engage people to participate with meaning. We had to dance. We had to sing. In “Biwelewele,”Steven Songo (Burundi) taught us the chorus and we happily sang along in Swahili. He was a trickster though. The chorus we sang was the word “stupid,” which he revealed at the end of the song. “I bet you didn’t think you were singing stupid,” he said, going on to explain that the lyrics encourage us to be supportive, respectful, to leave the hatred, and when we don’t, it’s, well, stupid. Biwelewele, we would sing. And he would sing back in Swahili, “Those people are jealous, hateful, nasty. They are biwelewele (stupid).”
- Drawing on diversity and using music to find common ground, but accept difference. In the song Ya Ganouby, Dina El Wedidi told us, “Being part of this project, on tour, has made me realize the distinct difference between even North and South Egypt. So I wrote this song about this difference.” The song took us on a journey, playing a rhythm to represent the north and then one of the represent the south, and then it fused both feels into one, accentuating difference and commonality at the same time. In a pluralistic world seeking sustainability, this is a model from which we could all learn.
- Empowerment pedagogy. The music was empowering. The Nile Project is empowering an international network of musicians to cultivate the sustainability of their ecosystem, educating and empowering themselves as well as the world. As the group travels, they also share their cultures, confronting assumptions in a powerful way. In the United States, people often seem to lump Africa into one box full of brown poor people that need “help.” However, the Nile Project forces participants to get outside these assumptions, animating the audience to active learning and listening from these innovative musicians and project.