Like few other rivers, the Nile has captured humankind's imagination from antiquity to today -- a source of life and inspiration, but of conflict as well. Just ask the men and women who integrate the group of performers, educators and activists known as the Nile Project.
Incredible music springs from the river's fertile banks. But so do cultural and environmental challenges - from booming populations to ecological degradation to political meddling. The urgency of helping preserve its basin for future generations prompted Egyptian-American ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and Ethiopian-American singer Meklit Hadero to launch an initiative in 2011 that would address those issues.
With backgrounds as diverse as Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia and Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya, musicians and singers were invited to join a collective effort that would give voice to the Nile and its issues through music. Last year, the artists took their musical creations to nearby countries; this year, they have brought their efforts to the United States.
Members of the Nile Project kicked off a four-month U.S. tour in New York City and will be visiting the North Shore Bandshell in Miami Beach on Saturday, as part of Miami Dade College's performing arts series MDC Live Arts. Workshops for MDC students and faculty will also be held prior to the day of the concert and afterwards.
"When we started the Nile Project, the idea was to bring together musicians from the 11 Nile countries to collaborate on making music that bridges their musical traditions, instruments and systems, and use these conversations that we have on stage to inspire a different way of thinking about the Nile," says Girgis.
The conversation surrounding the Nile is one that goes beyond the local problems faced by the countries that benefit from its water and soil. The allocation and control of resources, pollution, sustainability and other issues, also apply to a state such as Florida, where water is so linked to its future, in everything from the critical preservation of the Everglades to the rising sea level.
To also raise awareness of water-related issues the day of the concert but from a more local perspective, The National Water Dance Project, which uses dance as a catalyst to move people to care about the environment and specifically water resources, will offer a free performance earlier in the afternoon.
In the case of the Nile, Girgis speaks of the concept of "the Nile citizen," or a person who can contribute to the sustainability of the river in some capacity and who does not necessarily have to be from that area. The actions taken by a Nile citizen can be applied anywhere.
Musicians as citizens too
The Nile Project's concerts are a testament to the work across boundaries and borders that its participants engage in to bring to the forefront the myriad musical styles of the Nile region. The group released a critically acclaimed debut album, Aswan, in 2013, and expects to launch a new one, Jinja, this year.
"This is really great for me. It's like [I have] a new African family I didn't know before," says via e-mail Steven "Sogo" Irambona, Burundi's leading bassist, who describes his music as pure Burundi blues adapted to pop music with traditional native instruments."I have understood many things about people living along the Nile River."
Touring for the second time with the Nile Project, the 31-year-old musician recognizes that shared solutions are imperative if the region is to survive. "As it's a long river which connects many countries, if one of these countries exploits the water more than others, this will negatively affect other countries," he says. "So it's better to find a common ground."
Finding a common ground through music is not the only way the Nile Project fulfills its mission of inspiring and empowering people on the subject. "The music is only 25 to 30 percent of our program. The music is really our megaphone. It's how we attract people to this conversation. It's how we bring people into the world of the Nile," says Girgis, who believes it's the Nile's young generation, and the youth around the world more than anyone else, who can create change.
"Initially we were looking at everyone. And then we realized the kind of work we're doing is complex. It requires an engaged audience," explains Girgis. "To do justice to the level of learning and understanding that is required to make this happen, people need to have time to invest; they need to have a certain level of education; and they need to be young enough so that they don't have too much baggage."
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The Nile Project on Saturday, January 24, 8 p.m., at the North Shore Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave., Miami Beach. General admission $25; mdclivearts.org.
-- Juan Carlos Pérez-Duthie, artburstmiami.com