The Nile River and its various tributaries slither across 4,258 miles of northeast Africa, flowing south from Egypt to Uganda and touching 11 separate countries along the way. Each of those countries makes use of its waters, from irrigation to power to sustenance, which helps explain why the conflict over which countries control which portions of the river, and for what purposes, stretches about as far as the waterway itself.
For centuries, lawyers and politicians have attempted, through numerous treaties and initiatives, to mediate the concerns of the people of the Nile Basin, many of whom depend heavily on sustainable access to the river. Much of the difficulty has stemmed from clashing cultures and mutual distrust, with denizens of one nation often unwilling or unable to communicate with their Nile Basin neighbors. That’s where The Nile Project comes in.
Founded in 2011, the group comprises 13 musicians from the 11 Nile countries (representing more than 450 million people), blending the diversity of the region into a modern music that features, among other sounds, percussion from Uganda and Kenya, vocal stylings from Egypt and Sudan, and stringed instrumentation from Eritrea and Ethiopia. When on tour, the group also stages workshops and symposia on a range of topics including water conflicts, women’s rights and the history of the Nile Basin.
“One of the main problems that we have in the Nile Basin is that people from these different countries don’t really have any contact, and they don’t think of themselves as part of the same region.”
On Friday, Paste was proud to welcome The Nile Project to the Paste Studio as the band concluded the American leg of its 2017 tour. The performance was part of our Bands Without Borders series, which spotlights at-risk and immigrant musicians in celebration of the diversity that makes our country great, and in defiance of President Trump’s repeated attempts to prevent immigrants and refugees from entering the United States.
The Nile Project’s ultimate goal is to forge artistic connections that can serve as foundations for lasting cultural and political bonds, according to the group’s CEO and producer, Mina Girgis.
“One of the main problems that we have in the Nile Basin is that people from these different countries don’t really have any contact, and they don’t think of themselves as part of the same region,” he said. “We have East Africans and we have Ethiopians and Sudanese and Egyptians, and none of us thinks these countries have much in common. So what we’re trying to do is bring musicians from all of these 11 countries together to grow the cultural curiosity and the geographical awareness around the Nile and get people to start thinking about more constructive ways to solve the water problems.”
The group began its three-song Paste Studio performance with an enlivening rendition of an old Egyptian song, “Dingy Dingy.” The song, said Kenyan percussionist Kasiva Mutua, envisions the Nile and its various appendages as a single human body that functions best when coordinated.
“A long time ago Egypt and Sudan were one country, and when these boundaries were formed, this composer was not happy with the fact that the Nile was divided, too,” she said. “He put it in the context of a human body, saying that if you cut the human body into two halves, it’s not going to function properly.”
Ironically, The Nile Project’s mission of transcending borders and fostering harmony was nearly scuttled on America shores when President Trump assumed office in January. The band arrived in the U.S. on Jan. 18, two days before Trump’s inauguration and a week before the White House unveiled its first attempt a travel ban directed at seven majority Muslim nations.
“We were about to fly from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale, and we didn’t know whether the TSA was going to stop us in the airport, or if anything was going to happen,” said Girgis. “So everybody was freaking out a little bit… We didn’t know what to expect, but luckily it was unconstitutional. We didn’t think we were going to make it for 100 days while he’s in office, but here we are.”
Now, having completed the 100-day leg of their American tour, the Nile Project is off to Europe for another slate of shows and workshops through the summer. It’s also gearing up for the release of its third album, Tana, which was recorded in March as part of a residency with NC State Live at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.
Watch The Nile Project’s full Paste Studio session below, and visit them here.