The sounds of the Nile

March 17, 2014

The Nile Project was founded in August 2011 by Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero to address the Nile River basin’s cultural and environmental challenges using an innovative approach that combines music, education and an enterprise platform. This innovative approach was recently shared with a cross-section of audiences in the region. Their performances are described as warm, earthy and seductively entertaining, but this multi-cultured and multi-faceted group is bound by singular vision.  Mina Girgis spoke to our Nairobi editor, Kevin Mwachiro.

KM: You’ve just been performing in Tanzania (Zanzibar) and Kenya. What was the reaction to your work and what did you take away from this trip? 

MG: We began our Africa Tour with a two-week residency in Kampala and Jinja. After three concerts in both Ugandan cities to diverse audiences ranging from university students to crowds of expats and Ugandan music aficionados, we flew to Zanzibar to perform at the Sauti Za Busara festival. We found the Busara audience to be one of the more responsive crowds to our music.

The Nile Project showcases the diversity of musical traditions, instruments and languages found in the Nile Basin. Most of our audiences are familiar with one or two of the traditions we feature. But there is always a new territory – a sound that stretches their musical muscles. And the more exposed audiences find this stretching exercise to be stimulating rather than daunting. As performers on stage, we feed off this energy and we recognise an appreciative crowd thirsty to dive deeper into our music. 


KM: And in Kenya?

MG:  In Kenya, we found a similar crowd at our Nile Day celebration that took place at the Kuona Arts Centre. Our audience was excited to meet our musicians. When we had to turn off our sound system due to an imposed curfew, and we asked the crowd to get closer for an acoustic encore, we felt how meaningful this music was to those who were present. The diversity of our collective was clearly reflected in the diversity of our audience. There were as many – if not more – nationalities off stage as there were on stage. 

We also performed at the Safaricom International Jazz Festival which took place at the Nairobi. As the only world music group in the festival, we got the chance to share our music with an unassuming crowd of jazz lovers. We received equally positive reviews and formed many positive relationships during the festival. 

KM: Music and the environment, to some people these are interesting bed fellows. Why combine the two? 

MG: Our music – and our cultural traditions in general – reflect our relationships with our environments. When we began the Nile Project, we were quite surprised that this is the first initiative to bring together musicians from diverse cultures based on their riparian connection. For us, the river represented an obvious connection – a cultural corridor in which humans have travelled for thousands of years. Perhaps these environmental connections are better evidenced in times of geopolitical conflicts where the scarcity of one resource underscores our interdependence. However, a glance at our shared musical instruments shows us that we’ve been in contact for much longer than we think. The harps and lyres that appear all along our river validate our often overlooked connections.

In these times when we’re scrambling to find new ways to live in harmony with our environment, we find inspiration in our musical ways. We are all familiar with biomimicry[1], where we look at the way our ecosystem organizes itself for lessons to organize ourselves accordingly. In the Nile Project, we apply these biomimicry principles in the way we organize ourselves musically. But we also look at the ways we organize ourselves musically to learn how we could improve trans boundary dialogues and collaborations outside of the musical sphere. 

KM: What does the partnership with Hivos offer your project? 

MG: It is rare to find a funder who appreciates the complexity of the Nile Project and its multi-faceted model of change. Some funders are interested in the music. Some other funders are interested in the environmental impact. And some are only interested in the innovation and entrepreneurship. But Hivos gets the full scope of the project. This understanding allows us to implement our programs without having to dissect them. In Hivos, we find a partner who not only supports financially, but who can advise us programmatically and strategically. 


[1] Biomimicry  is a new discipline that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.