I was thrilled to attend The Nile Project’s recent performance at Zellerbach Hall, part of a larger residency on the UC Berkeley campus. I remember The Nile Project as an idea, a concept, and a kickstarter I supported and got a great CD out of. Little did I know how it would grow. I know one of the organizers, Mina Girgis, only tangentially—-I was a regular student at a music school called Zambaleta that he ran for a bit in San Francisco (it is rare to have a place where one can take weekly group riqq lessons and occasional Gnawa singing and music workshops) and have attended local music events he helped produce. I may in fact not yet be completely over the school closing, but seeing what Mina is doing now makes it hurt less, and it is more than a little inspiring to know of someone like him who gets an idea and then makes it happen.
My partner and I arrived in Berkeley early, via BART, and lingered over some spicy Thai food before cutting across the rapidly darkening campus of my alma mater. We saw a few friends outside and in the lobby, and when we got to our seats were happy to know both the person both behind us (a long time dance friend who I knew would be there) and in front of us (a local friend who is a record producer who I didn’t know was attending—-turns out he produced a few of Meklit‘s albums, one of the co-founders and performers in the project). The stage was set up with chairs, risers, and instruments, lit with a soft blue light, and it was fun to chat with friends as we eagerly awaited the start of the show.
In the two acts of the concert we were taken through 11 Nile and Nile Basin countries —- Burundi, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. There were performers onstage representing most of the countries, and they shared songs that evolved out of three multiple-week residencies, with one artist bringing a tune, tale, riff, or idea to the table, and the group working through it together to create a cohesive piece. The pacing of the first half was strong and steady, in my opinion the second half dragged a little (not because of the material or the performers, it seemed like there may have been technical difficulties). I admit that I never thought of some of the countries as ‘Nile countries’, and I laughed when co-founder Mina Girgis said from the stage that one of the performers goals was to make politicians jealous of them and the work they get to do making connections between people in the countries. I think the explicit politics of this project are important—-working for water rights from an artistic, pro-people, regional, and musical perspective.
As an artist who is inspired by Egyptian dance and music for my own work, it seems clear why an event with the word ‘Nile in it would appeal, and the connection between the Nile and Egypt is obvious to anyone. But it was incredibly refreshing to attend a ‘Nile’ music event where the focus was explicitly looking toward the rest of East Africa. In the global belly dance scene I am a part of, Egypt is sort of a touchstone for many—-albeit occasionally an imagined, fantastical, or dated one. However, many of the references and inspirations my fellow dancers also focus on point north and west, into West Asia and along the Mediterranean. While those connections are certainly real, vital and interesting—-politically, historically, spiritually, and linguistically the Arab influence on and relationship with Egypt cannot be understated—-what a joy to see connections made because of a river and because of a continent, because of land and because of water. It makes sense, and it goes deep. I do not mean to say these connections are not made by anyone in the dance world, as there are some well known dancers and dance researchers who are vocal with their work about African connections in our dance form. The Nile Project makes no bones about it. These are countries with a shared history and shared resources—–and shared, related, compatible instruments and musical styles, but often unknown between countries. Artistically representing countries often pitted politically against one another for shared resources, the Nile Project aims to show solidarity and commonality through music, dance, and good old fashioned people power. And they are doing it well. The women singers—-three from Rwanda, Egypt, and Ethiopia, and with roots in Ethiopia and Sudan—-sang solos in their own languages and backed one another up in learned languages. It was beautiful, powerful, participatory, inspiring and fun.
From left to right: Nader Elshaer (kawala), Jorga Mesfin (saxophone), Mohamed Abouzekry (oud), Kasiva Mutua (percussion, vocals), Steven Sogo (bass, umiduri, vocals), Michael Bazibu (percussion), Hany Bedeir (percussion), Selamnesh Zemene (vocals), Sophie Nzayisenga (inanga, vocals), Dina El Wedidi (vocals), Meklit Hadero (vocals), Alsarah (vocals). Not pictured: Miles Jay (contrabass).
The focus on water also stood out watching the performance while in a state and a region being hit hard by a drought, with odds of any long term relief slim. I’m interested in regional solutions to some of the issues currently facing the Bay Area, and at times during the concert my thoughts wandered to representation and voices and access in my own city and expended communities. Geographic connections for resources both natural and human made—-water, land, housing, transit—-make sense to me. We can all benefit from learning about our neighbors stories.
The prestige of performing in an internationally respected theater, in the very place where the Nile Project was first conceived of (Bay Area represent!), is important. But there were times during the show that I couldn’t help but wish for a smaller venue, one without velvet seats and steeply stepped aisles with ushers guarding the doors, where we could all move a little more to the music. While I appreciate the power of seeing music and movement on a stage presented as ‘real’ and worthy of the space, as well as the validation that can bring for future funding and work that it comes with, there is of course a high ticket price, an ‘educated’ in-the-know audience, and having to sit down while amazing music is being played.
I also found myself worrying before the show that the Nile Project might fall into the bland ‘word music’ trap—-a phrase I can’t stand, often a term of banality leading the hopeful listener to watered down versions of great music made palatable for sensitive outside ears. As a person who has been buying cassettes and records (remember those?) described in languages I often can’t yet understand regularly since I was a teenager, I know both the amazing joys and the unsatisfying disappointments that can hide behind the cover of an album or music project. I am pleased to report that these folks definitely have not given in to anything! Here is to the Nile Project staying political, sharp, down to earth and funny as they move forward.
To list what I perceived as highlights from the show almost seems unfair, as each person on the stage was amazing, and brought something unique to the group. I do have to give an extra fist bump, zaghareet, shimmy, and thumbs up to Nader Elshaer’s sublime kawala playing, Sophie Nzayisenga’s inanga playing and her total stage presence (it is not easy to command a big stage alone, and she set the tone of the evening immediately when she kicked off the show), Michael Bazibu’s percussion skills and song/instrument introductions, Dina El Wedidi’s mawaal, and all the women singers’ unity and beauty in blending sounds and words together. Again, I hesitate to even mention specific performers out for fear of implying that each person on the stage was not a core part of the energy, sound, and entire feel of the evening. To lose one of them would have made for a different show. Each participant in the Nile Project is a talented, experienced artist in their own right, and I posted the performers names as a caption to one of my photos above in hopes readers will search out their work. I believe they call it a “project” for a reason, as there are other artists working at various times and in various capacities on recordings, concerts, education, outreach, organizing, and residencies—and I’m sure after this many more talented folks will be hoping to participate in some way.
Two fun anecdotal asides: First, UC Berkeley is my Alma’s matter, and it is always fun to be back there. On our way from BART to Zellerbach, we went on a little detour to say hi to the T Rex and the pterodactyl, and I happily remembered late library nights feverishly researching obscure topics. Second, I ran into one of my very first belly dance students! In the early 2000s I began teaching dance classes under the mentorship of my own first teacher. I subbed for her classes, and she ultimately had me develop and implement a curriculum at her studio for teen dancers (she only taught adults). I wound up working with a great group of whip smart young women (who, if I can indulge in yet another aside, also were the ones who taught *me* that a version of the Abdel Halim Hafez song Khosara I used in class was sampled for the Jay Z song Big Pimpin’!). It was so cool to see a person I remember as a a teenager all grown up, working for environmental and social justice, and attending an great concert (hi Vrinda, if you ever stumble across this post!).
I am proud to have supported The Nile Project from its inception, and certainly will be there when they come through town next. I encourage my fellow dancers and Egyptian music lovers to check out their work, and hope we all let our own ideas, work, and processes expand and grow based on their work.
The Nile Project continues its current tour through the United States through early May 2015, and if you are near an area where they are performing, please consider attending. You will not be disappointed!