The Nile River connects humanity’s most exalted sites, one branch leading from East Africa’s Great Lakes, one from the Abyssinian highlands, linking the terrain where the first humans walked to the Egyptian cradle of modern civilization, cutting a fertile swathe through the desert as it flows to the sea.
Today, however, the countries of the Nile basin look inward, each with its own concerns: Ethiopia’s push for investment, Sudan and South Sudan’s civil wars, Egypt’s revolution and reaction, Rwanda’s rebirth after genocide.
Culture, too, tends to obey borders. The sound of the Addis jazz clubs is an Ethiopian sound. Conversation in Cairo cafés engages Egypt alone. And when artists travel, it’s not to neighboring countries, but to Europe and North America, with their more lucrative opportunities and their busy immigrant diasporas.
This makes the Nile Project, a collective of musicians from 11 Nile basin countries — from Egypt to Burundi — that visits Boston University all next week, more than a fusion project. It’s an intervention, aimed not just at making music, but also at driving concrete work on shared issues like water rights, food security, education, social empowerment, and climate change.
A tall order for mere artists, maybe. But Egyptian ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis, who founded the project in 2011 with Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero, sees a natural fit. “We’re finding ways to use music to solve challenges beyond music,” Girgis says. “Music can play a role in the sustainability of the basin.”
The team has held three “Nile Gatherings” of musicians, in Egypt and Uganda, building a repertoire of original music. They’ve released an album, “Aswan,” to critical raves. They’ve held workshops on music, water, and social issues at universities in Cairo, Nairobi, and Kampala. They’ve met with NGOs, foundations, and governments.
Now the Nile Project is touring the United States for the first time, with a band featuring 13 of the collective’s 27 members. The four-month journey is organized around college residencies. At BU, they will hold campus and community events all week, culminating in a concert at the Tsai Center on Friday night.
“With residencies, we go beyond the artistic context of the work, and get students engaged in all aspects surrounding water conflict,” Girgis says. “It takes a bit more than just a concert to do that.” They’ve also held activities for high-school students, and met with members of East and North African immigrant communities in the cities they visit.
The Nile Project’s music-making is an equally deliberate process. The traditions of the region share instruments — flutes, lyres, percussion — that are related but used in very different systems of scales, rhythms, and song. At the Nile Gatherings, musicians find themselves on turf at once familiar and foreign. “We are so close, as African neighbors, and yet there is not much sharing,” says Ethiopian saxophonist Jorga Mesfin.
Using a modified version of Theory U, a group collaboration model devised by MIT professor Otto Scharmer, Girgis says the gatherings begin by putting musicians in small groups, then gradually merging their ideas through composition and arrangement. Most of the artists are bandleaders themselves; here, they must check their egos.
“We start by learning new things about each other’s culture: dance, rhythm, or children’s games,” says Mesfin. “And everyone has a musical response.” Before long, he says, one Egyptian colleague was playing Ethiopian scales like a local. “You would think that he was Ethiopian himself,” Mesfin says. “It’s a good way to start a relationship.”
In a measure of the project’s success, all this methodology seems to vanish into seamless performance. “The sound is exhilarating,” says BU professor Marié Abe, who planned the week’s events. “It’s so organic that listeners might not know what goes into the collaboration.” (She urges those curious to attend the group’s lecture-demonstration, “Musics of the Nile,” on Tuesday; a full schedule is at www.bu.edu/arts/nile-project.)
While Hadero, the other cofounder, has pursued her own singer-songwriter career alongside the Nile Project, Girgis is running the venture as a full-time job. The logistics of gathering a dozen or more busy musicians from many countries for a creative retreat, let alone a four-month American tour, are daunting. “The lawyer who works on our visas told me he could not think of a more complex project,” he says.
But Girgis finds fulfilment in how the project allows him to use the vantage point of diaspora (raised in Egypt, he moved to California) to mobilize artists and contribute back home. “It took going far away to zoom out and see the connections,” he says. “But the project took off because we were connected locally.”
As they cross the country, the project team is also meeting university faculty and recruiting students to take part in their projects. The Nile Project has ambitious initiatives to support university students and young entrepreneurs and innovators in the countries it covers — as well as to build opportunities for local musicians.
Sudanese singer Alsarah, a veteran of all three Nile Gatherings and one of the few musicians on the team to be based in the diaspora (she lives in Brooklyn), says the project is a rare mix of musicians who are socially like-minded.
“We’re connecting according to a more natural system than a political system,” she says. “We’re flowing together pretty well.”
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.