“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace and abolishing strife.” -Khalil Gibran

At a moment when riparian tensions over the proposed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have captured headlines around the world, an Egyptian ethnomusicologist and an Ethiopian-American singer sought to respond to these challenges by inspiring, educating, and empowering Nile citizens to work together to foster the sustainability of their shared ecosystem. With their passion for music and their belief in its power to stir curiosity, generate empathy and promote dialogue, it was project’s natural starting place. In May 2012, they started a 5-weeks Nile Scout trip to bring in musicians and partners from Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

The Nile Project Musical Collective first gathered at a two-week residency in Aswan, Egypt in January 2013, during which they collaboratively composed a new body of songs drawn from the Nile Basin’s diverse musical traditions and instruments. The result was their first album, Aswan, recorded live at their debut performance.  The collective’s six vocalists sing in 11 different languages on the album. Their lyrics range from the deeply personal to the party anthem, exploring themes of identity, regional solidarity, intercultural relationships both between and within their respective homelands, their local music scenes, and living in the diaspora.

A powerful pan-Nile percussion section drives the collective, which reunites traditional instruments of ancient common ancestries and merges new ones.  The plucked harp (lyre) and spike fiddle have formed the heart and soul of the Nile’s musical identity for millennia, and modern versions of both instruments are found in every country along the Nile Basin. The former is represented on Aswan by the Sudanese masenkop, Ugandan adungu, and Egyptian simsimiya and tamboura, while the latter manifests as the Ethiopian masenko and Ugandan endingidi. In curating the collective, co-producers Mina Girgis and Miles Jay sought to highlight the unique timbres of these instruments, while also surrounding them with complementary sounds from their respective traditions, including the Ethiopian saxophone, Egyptian neyoud, and violin, and the bass guitar.

By exposing local audiences to the cultures of their river neighbors, the Project’s music provides a space to learn about each other and create a shared Nile identity. Building on this awareness, the Nile Project is developing a universities program to inspire, educate and empower an international network of university students to cultivate the sustainability of their Nile’s ecosystem through dialogue, education, leadership and innovation.

Find out more about Nile Project musicians here and tours here.

Commissioned by Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts for Target Free Thursdays at the David Rubenstein Atrium.

Image: Nile Project’s Cairo concert at Al Azhar Park on 31 Jan 2013 © Matjaz Kacicnik