Music, Water, Life :: The Nile Project

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.

Photo of The Nile Project by Monica Berini 2015. All rights reserved.The crew prepares the stage.

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.

Photo of The Nile Project by Monica Berini 2015. All rights reserved.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!

Photo of The Nile Project by Monica Berini 2015. All rights reserved.

Practice

I am interested in how other dancers practice. I have an online crew of about a dozen folks that I have gotten to know over the last decade, and though we are in very different parts of the world we have a group we check in with to talk about what we did in our day. Practice to me is a broad word. For all dancers it means movement, class, technique, rehearsal. But in my experience it also means listening to and learning about music, thinking about the bigger picture , travel, culture, context, and research. I like to keep the ‘why’ involved along with the ‘how’ and the ‘what’! Many dancers I know are not full time dancers, and I particularly like to hear about how part-time pros and serious hobbyists keep up with dance while juggling day jobs. There is no wrong answer when it comes to a personal practice methodology, and it is an ongoing, changing, dynamic process with an ebb and a flow.

Given all that, when I saw Dancers Group, a rockin’ local organization in my city, was hosting a panel on Practice Discourses on a winter evening at a local performance space as part of their Dancers Discourse Project, I knew I wanted to go and listen to what my colleagues had to say.

On the panel were some folks who were known to me by name only, and some folks who I had not heard of. Old school stalwarts of the Bay Area Contemporary dance scene such as Sarah Shelton Mann, Nina Haft and Margaret Jenkins were representing, along with a fellow I only know from Facebook but feel a kinship with (punk rock + dance!), Brontez Purnell, plus a new to me dancer, Dia Dear. Moderators were Jesse Hewit and Larry Arrington. It was a great group to hear in conversation.

I won’t lie: I often feel like a poser at contemporary dance events, which is my own silly issue. I have to build myself up and remind myself that everyone has their path, not to get on my high horse and blurt out random accomplishments to attempt to prove something no one cares about, and just…chill. While a lot of it stems from my dance form not always being taken seriously by varied groups of people, the truth is in these kinds of situations it really is mostly in my head. Though the bulk of my work and thinking is done in and around Southwest Asian, Arab, North African and belly dance and music contexts, I have also participated in DanceUSA conferences (on a grant, even!), and various other non-Arab dance workshops and events and what do you know…no one has ever been a jerk to me. Imagine that! I even teach at a big city dance center that is mostly ballet and modern dance, and have done so happily, and feeling supported and welcomed, since 2003. The good thing about discourse-based events like this is you learn everyone feels left out or awkward sometimes—-you get to hear what people are thinking rather than make guesses as they grunt though class next to you. Yay discourse!

I thought I would use my little blog platform here to share some of what I got out of this event. I took a lot of notes, and 7 or so weeks later have stumbled across them again. I think there is some value in them, and hope my readers might as well.

The evening started, as so many conversations among non-tech people in San Francisco do lately, about changes in our city and in our region. It was generally agreed that as artists we are seeing even more of a commercial based exchange than ever before in a city that is altering, or being altered, faster than any of us can remember. Calling yourself an artist is a precarious thing to do in what are precarious times. It’s rough times for dancers out there to spend time doing anything but making commercial work and making a living, which does not bode well for artistic growth or even maintenance. This is the reality and the context of all dance discussions in this town.

The panel talked about practice as an expanded concept of what we do in a day–including what we do to keep our chins up in the above-referenced challenging economic times. This really resonated with me as a person who, as I mentioned, likes hearing the nitty gritty of how dancers live, act, and practice every day in the regular old world and recognizing all of that as part of their practice. Someone referenced Merce Cunningham talking about practice: “It’s easy when you learn how to do it..but you’ll never learn how to do it. That’s my practice.” (Note: I looked for a reference to this quote and could not find it, so it is likely a paraphrase. Merce had some great quotable things to say.)

In one of my very favorite parts of the evening, Nina Haft talked about her experience as a martial arts student and practitioner, and how that informed her ideas about being a dancer and a dance maker. She said that in martial arts getting older meant having more to offer—-and that that felt like the exact opposite of dance. She said that in martial arts, older folks could kick your ass without even getting near you—-the goal, in fact, was to never perform and practice is what gets you to that point. It is all about control, control that comes with time. She went on to talk about the mystery of ‘levels’ in dance classes and it really often being an unspoken hierarchy. She learned to greatly appreciate the clarity of a belt system in martial arts. Finally, she talked about the unskilled person (a white belt) playing an important role. Simply by being unpredictable, they make the black belts better.

How beautiful is that, you guys? It made me reflect on the concept of beginners mind, of always having something to learn, of revering our masters but welcoming our newbies, of honoring everyone involved, and of never taking anything or anyone for granted. I recall attending classes with Lorna Zilba in the 1990s. She chose to run her classes as mixed level, beginners next to pros. I had been making my living as a performing dancer for a while, thought I knew a thing or two (such a dangerous, silly thought pattern!), and was not always sure about her methods. In fact, being thrown out of my comfort one and being surrounded by variety (while still being challenged as a student) became a big part of my development as a dancer. Nina’s comments on the panel also reminded me of a scene in Carlos Saura‘s documentary film and love letter to dance and music, ‘Flamenco‘, where an older woman gets up to sing and dance and holy shit—-the power behind her just getting out of her chair is mindboggling. It comes right through the screen, and she does not have to do much to show that she has everything to offer, a lifetime of experience to show and tell. Everything. At risk of romanticizing or simplifying things, in general the reverence shown to older singers, dancers and participants in dances of the people and folk dances can be powerful. That is not true in many contemporary forms around the world. I saw it in Egypt among many folkloric styles as well, though not usually in raqs sharqi. Nina talking about the appreciation of the older master along with the need for the younger learner resonated with me, especially in a world where ‘younger’, ‘faster’, ‘snappier’, and ‘harder’ sometimes is taken to mean an evolutionary form of ‘better’. This seems shortsighted. What are we missing out on as dancers? As audience members? As dance makers? As humans?

Okay, back to the event!

Brontez Purnell hit it out of the park when he talked about formalizing what he was already doing in his life. I wrote down exactly what he said: “Fuck, if I don’t class it up people are gonna think I’m just a drunk slut in my underwear. So I started a dance company.”

Anyone else find that as liberating as I do?

I’ll end on a note that made me feel so much better about it all. Sarah Shelton Mann said, “I quit every year.” I believe all dancers who have been around for a minute can relate to this, and hearing it from someone who is a ‘name’—-decades on the scene, national grant recipient, highly respected—-was shockingly reassuring to me. She hasn’t quit, obviously, but admitting she wants to sometimes? Yup. I needed that! She went on to talk about how her work has changed. Some years it has been a full time company, some years a part time company, some years project based work. Ebb and flow.

At this point we had been going almost two hours. As the moderators moved folks into breakout groups to continue the conversation with everyone, I slipped out, and walked through the cool night air toward my bus stop, my head a mix of thoughts and emotions.

In my notebook I wrote “talking to self = practice“. I’m not sure who said it, or if it was a thought that came up during one part of the chat or even on the bus ride home. But I believe this implicitly. There is the physical, though truthfully my own dancing never flourished through an aerobic style methodology alone. I am willing to work hard physically, and love waking up knowing without question I danced the day before, but that alone is…hollow. The ‘it will burn!’ mentality is a turn-off. I need thought, authenticity, realness, brains, and purpose behind the movement.

So how does all this apply to belly dance, a form that modern practitioners in the globalized dance scene can not always even agree on defining the exact same way?! I can only speak for myself and my approach. To me, and in my practice, it has meant asking the tough questions, using definitions and methods that come from source cultures, remaining true to myself as a person while I explored, and learning to look at those who came before me and taking their work seriously—-even the ones who never gained popularity outside small circles or a period of time. It has meant never taking anything as gospel truth, even things I have seen with my own eyes. But it has also meant personalizing it all a bit, while still trying to balance ego and staying hungry and open. I am a dancer, it is a huge part of my life and livelihood. My aim has been to dance a style rooted in a place not my own, and it has meant accepting that, like my Arabic speaking, I may always dance with an accent (luckily I like accents and dialects). It has meant larger intellectual learning, which–perhaps paradoxically to some readers—-has in fact allowed me to ultimately let go and experience joy and dancing without thinking. It is only though the daily drudge of practice—-dance class, daily movement, observation of peers and dance mammas and grandmammas (and some pappas!), reading, traveling, listening, thinking, making mistakes, admitting when I’m wrong, the solidity of knowing when I am right or recognize a truth, knowing when to say no, being brave enough to say yes, being a good physical ‘editor’ (belly dance does not require the kitchen sink!), being scared, feeling silly, quitting dance jobs I fought hard to get, knowing when to limit my artistic input and when to widen my views—-that I have come to a place where I finally think I might know a thing or two. And yup, a couple of those things I know is that there is always more to know, solidity is an illusion, there is no such thing as perfect. And none of that means I have nothing to say or offer as a dancer—-quite the contrary. In fact, letting go of ‘perfect’ as some kind of goal and seeing practice as a continuum and a process and a daily habit has allowed me to to stretch more artistically than I did before, take more risks, and be confident and aware in the moment while not being scared of ‘failure’. Things change in different contexts, and that is okay. We can work in a shifting medium if we stay flexible and stay true. Practice is performance, practice is the thing, and the journey is, in fact, the destination. No one else will see it even as you are doing it all the time, it is just your daily life that may get glimpsed by a lucky few when it comes together for performance.

And it is worth it.

Keep practicing, guys! I welcome your thoughts, comments, and hearing about your own practice should you be moved to share.

Can you see the back of my head in the photo above? 😉