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More than a band: Musicians seek to bring harmony to Africa's water conflicts

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Mina Girgis, producer and CEO of The Nile Project.

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Kim Grizzard

Friday, March 31, 2017

On the surface, it might seem that all these countries have in common is the river that runs through them.

The 11 nations that make up Africa’s Nile River Basin represent some of the poorest countries in the world. Home to more than 450 million people, they are rich in culture — and in conflict, including some that arise from the water itself.

The Nile Project, launched in 2011, is an attempt to help bring harmony to the region through music. Thirty-five musicians, performing songs in 10 languages, blend their cultures’ unique musical styles in an effort to set the stage for cooperation that transcends sound.

“The Nile Project is different things for different people,” Mina Girgis, producer and chief executive officer of The Nile Project, said. “In its simplest form, it is a collaboration among citizens of the 11 Nile countries to work on a solution to one of the challenges facing the Nile sustainability. In the case of the music, it’s musicians that are collaborating to make music that inspires cultural curiosity and environmental understanding of the issues facing the different countries.”

In its first five years, members of the project not only performed 85 concerts during tours of three continents, they also conducted 130 workshops on issues ranging from environmental to cultural and social problems.

The project’s 2017 U.S. tour includes stops at five campuses within the University of North Carolina system. The Nile Project is scheduled to arrive Wednesday at East Carolina University for the first of more than a dozen concerts, workshops and discussions planned as part of the group’s four-day residency. These include a presentation for area elementary and middle school students and a concert to conclude the S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series season, both scheduled for April 7.

Playing to American and European audiences was not what Girgis had in mind when he conceived the idea for The Nile Project six years ago. Girgis, whose background is in ethnomusicology (the study of music in its cultural context), had just returned to San Francisco following a visit to his native Egypt that came during the uprising of 2011. Attending an Ethiopian concert with a friend, he began to consider how music might be an effective means to start a conversation about water issues in countries surrounding the Nile River. The first musicians’ gathering was held in 2013, and the group began its African tour the next year.

“The motivation for this project was not to bring it to the United States,” said Girgis, who has a bachelor’s degree in hospitality administration from Florida State University. “It was mainly to have it perform in Africa to the people from these different countries.”

For the first performances, musicians set sail on the river, presenting concerts and sustainability workshops in eight cities across five countries along the Nile.

“There’s an upstream downstream dynamic, conflict over water allocation among the 11 countries,” Girgis explained. “When you look at the possible solutions to that problem, you can realize that the efforts of governments will not solve the water scarcity problem. The solution is to find creative approaches to using this water better and that would require involvement of more than governments.

“There is a lot of cultural isolation among the countries sharing the river,” he said. “The music that we’re making helps the Nile as a watershed and helps people see the cultural connection that these countries share.”

Four the current tour, 12 musicians from seven countries share the stage, performing a medley of African musical styles, including traditional, dance and religious songs.

“You can call it fusion because we combine different musical traditions from the different countries, different rhythms, different scales, different playing styles,” Girgis said. “We kind of visit a lot of different territories in one performance.”

Instruments range from Egyptian flutes and Sudanese harps to keyboards and electric guitars.

“The music is fantastic and critically acclaimed,” said Michael Crane, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication. “People should attend the concert just for the novelty, complexity and diversity of the music.”

Off stage, the project includes a partnership with half a dozen universities in Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania that is designed to bring together students to collaborate on solving river sustainability challenges.

In Greenville, discussions surrounding The Nile Project residency will include representatives of the North Carolina Conservation Network and Sound Rivers in addition to water issues experts from ECU.

“It’s very easy to draw comparisons to issues that face everyone, like water rights, safety and sustainability,” Crane said.

While water issues in North Carolina may seem to have little in common with those encountered in parts of Africa, Girgis said conversations about the Nile often uncover parallels to other regions.

“It’s a good opportunity to get people from the local community to reflect on their context and see how different it is and how similar it is to other parts of the world,” he said. “... We definitely have opened many people’s eyes to their roles in water sustainability, and a lot of people are realizing they can be much more involved in sustainability of their river than they thought.”

For more information, visit nileproject.org.

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