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The Nile Project: an East African musical journey

It all started in a bar in Oakland. Egyptian-American ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and his friend, Ethiopian-American singerMeklit Hadero, were having a beer after seeing an Ethiopian band play.

They started talking about how they would never have known anything about each other’s music or culture if they didn’t live outside their home countries. But as immigrants, borders become more fluid, and common threads start to emerge.

“In London or New York or San Francisco, we're each other's neighbors and friends and co-workers,” says Hadero.  “And the fact that folks from everywhere are in those places means that we can hear each other's music, we can grow beyond being strangers in a very everyday way. And this just isn’t true on the continent of Africa.”

East Africa, where Hadero and Girgis come from, is fragmented by geography, language, politics, and religion, but despite all those differences, there is a point of connection.

“For me, the connection was the Nile,” says Girgis.

The Nile River is the longest river in the world. It’s a shared resource in a region with very little else in common.

“And we were like, why don't we create a project that brings musicians from across the river together?” recalls Hadero. “Wouldn't that be amazing?”

So they did.

In a quiet park in Kampala, Uganda, 14 musicians from eight different East African countries sit under a tree.

A Sudanese man in a long, white robe plucks the metal strings of a harp he holds in his lap. Around him, people are playing Kenyan drums made of old oil cans, Ethiopian one-string violins, a Rwandan rattle made of a small gourd filled with seeds, a Burundian thumb piano, an Egyptian flute.

Ugandan musician Lawrence Okello flips through the pages of a worn notebook. He plays drums, a traditional stringed instrument called an endungu, and he sings. Right now, he’s explaining his concept for a new song that all the musicians will create. Together.

“This is what I would suggest for this piece,” says Okello. “That we have a conflict, and then all of us will keep on adding flavors from different cultures, but maintaining the water that flows.”

The musicians start translating Okello’s ideas. Under this tree, at least seven different languages are spoken, and three different tonal systems are used – which are like three totally different musical languages.

You can hear the idea taking shape. People start fooling around with their instruments, and a group of singers gathers. They start making a spontaneous song that starts with cacophony, and ends with the soothing sounds of an Egyptian flute.

Chaos and conflict that resolve into harmony.  A musical reflection of what project organizers hope can come from bringing together the many cultures that share the disputed waters of the Nile.

“Most people don't think of East African countries as one region,” says Nile Project organizer Mina Girgis. “But all of these countries are really connected by the longest river in the world that is a source of life to many of them. And this way of thinking allows us to really see how we're interdependent and how we can collaborate to solve our problems and to develop together.”

Collaboration is at the core of the project. Everyone gets the chance to lead, and everyone gets the chance to follow. No one musician or culture is in charge of what happens.

“By creating music together in a very egalitarian way, then we can be a kind of model for the world that we want to see. And the Nile Basin that we'd like to see,” says project co-founder MeklitHadero.

The Nile River flows through 11 countries in East Africa, providing drinking water, electricity, agriculture, and jobs for more than 400 million people in some of the world’s poorest nations. How this water gets used, and who gets to decide, are at the heart of fierce geopolitical conflicts in the region.

For example, in 2013, Ethiopia diverted Nile waters to begin construction on the Grand Renaissance Dam - Africa’s biggest hydroelectric plant. The government of Egypt threatened military action, arguing that the dam would cut off most of its drinking water. War didn’t break out, but tensions still remain high.

“People get inspired by music and they say, okay, I can hear the music of Sudan. Wow. The music of Ethiopia. Then why should we fight if we are enjoying the same music? The same sounds. The same rhythms,” says Lawrence Okello.

The songs written here will become part of a concert tour, and an album, called Jinja, after the Ugandan town at the source of the Nile. In 2013, the Nile Project’s first album, Aswan, took its name from the Egyptian town at the river’s end.

But music is only one part of the Nile Project. There are educational workshops on environmental justice, a Nile sustainability prize, the development of an massive online open course (MOOC) in partnership with US universities, and a Nile Project academic residency starting at UC Berkeley in 2015. MeklitHadero says what started out as two friends sharing a beer and talking music has grown into something much bigger.

“What we realized was 'wow, maybe music in this case really is more than just music.'”

There is a long future ahead for the project, but it’s already having a transformative impact on the musicians involved, in the most everyday way possible.

After living together in Uganda for two weeks, the Nile Project musicians spend two months travelling on this year’s concert tour of East Africa, ending with a final show in Egypt where the Nile pours into the Mediterranean Sea.

“I think the first and actually most important thing that happens is friendship,” says Hadero. “And I don't mean that lightly. I mean that in any sorts of challenging situations, in polarized situations. So one of the most powerful things is to know someone from another culture. To know their face, and their history, and their laugh, and their kindness. And what happens to them when they get stressed out? The kind of nuances of humanity that happen.”

 For more information about the Nile Project, including their Bay Area tour dates, click here

To listen to this story, please click the audio player above. This story originally aired on May 8, 2014.