The Nile Project: A Rich Tributary Flowing Through the World of Music
‘The Nile’, it is one of the few rivers in the world, the mere mention of which conjures up a heady mixture of romance, history and intrigue. It is truly a cross-cultural river.
The great historian and broadcaster, Basil Davidson, once described it as “…more than a river…a library of human history…”. And, who can argue with him?
If you heard ‘The Nile Project’, you might conjure up yet another archaeological exercise aimed at unearthing the secrets of one on the many cities now buried under the Nile.
Someone had the bright idea of somehow trying to capture all that the Nile signifies and calling it ‘The Nile Project’. Thank goodness, they did. For, what they have bequeathed to the world is a vibrant band that belies that rather Plain-sounding name.
The band, which was formed in 2011 and released its first recordings as recently as 2013, brings together musicians from all 11 countries (Egypt, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo) through which the great river flows. As with the river, the band is gloriously cross-cultural.
Since then, they have taken their ‘musical gumbo’ around the world to the delight of audiences wherever they have performed.
Almost as importantly, they sound as varied and as great as they look.
In 2017, the band was planning on setting out on yet another tour. In keeping with the word ‘project’ in their name, the band put on a series of workshops in most of the cities where they perform. These address women’s roles in society, water conflict issues and how history has represented the Nile.
They are about much more than ‘just music’, with a sociological message addressing and attempting to counter the ‘water conflict’ of the Nile basin.
The band says its intentions include “Using music to spark cultural curiosity, …to engage audiences to learn about the world’s longest river and understand its large-scale social, cultural, and environmental sustainability challenges.” They have already achieved this and so much more.
The project is very much a collective and necessarily collaborative affair.
What is remarkable is how they have managed to bring together the diverse and rich musical heritages of so many countries and yet, make it seem like the most natural, seamless and obvious thing: no mean feat!
Imagine, if you will the music that you have heard from these countries. Now, imagine blending them into a wonderful mix of the traditional and the modern, instrumental and vocal. That mental image only gets you half way there; you have to hear how it all blends to truly appreciate the music.
Each musician is in total command of their instrument, whether it be the voice or the stringed and percussive instruments. Truly a joyous noise!
As you can imagine, taking 35 musicians around the world would be a logistical nightmare. Of necessity, what you get is a pared down – but not too pared down – version of the larger ensemble. In 2017, the musicians taking this venture on the road from the countries touched by the river and the musical traditions of the region are:
Adel Mekha: Nubian percussionist and vocalist based in Cairo.
Ahmed Omar: Born in Libya to an Eritrean father and Egyptian mother. He plays bass for several leading Egyptian bands and organizes the AfriCairo festival and music project.
Asia Madani: A Sudanese vocalist and percussionist residing in Cairo. She is a consummate stage performer.
Dave Otieno: One of Kenya’s leading guitarists, fluent in the Benga style common to the Lake Victoria region.
Ibrahim Fanous: An Eritrean kraar player and vocalist based in London.
Kasiva Mutua: Kenyan percussionist and singer Mutua, who says she learned drumming from her grandmother.
Micheal Bazibu: A member of Uganda’s leading traditional music and dance company, Ndere, for close to two decades. He is a virtuoso of several traditional Ugandan stringed and percussion instruments with virtuosic grace.
Mohamed Abozekry: Egyptian oud player, who has also recently signed up to release his own records on the respected Harmonia Mundi label.
Nader El Shaer: Born in Port Said, Egypt, El Shaer taught himself accordion and ney, the kawala (end-blown cane flute).
Saleeb Fawzy: Born in Minya, Egypt, vocalist and percussionist. He is currently working on the Tawasol project, which helps people to learn through art.
Selamnesh Zemene: Northern Ethiopia. She can also be heard on recordings by Rock band The Ex.
Steven “Sogo” Irambona: Born in Burundi, plays the guitar and is a World Bank Musical Ambassador for Burund.
Let’s leave the last word to Asia Madani:
“Unlike so many other cross-cultural collaborations, for us, the music is just the starting point. The concert opens the door. It makes people curious and inspired. It engages their sense of empathy.”
Recording to look out for:
Jinja (Expected 2017)