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On Center: The Nile Project

by on April 01, 2015 2:46 PM

The Nile Project uses music to raise awareness of the cultural and environmental challenges along Africa’s mighty river. The project unites artists from each country in the Nile basin to learn from one another and compose music together.

The Nile forms a complex system wrought with political, environmental, economic, and social challenges. The project seeks to educate and empower Nile citizens to work cooperatively to boost the sustainability of their ecosystem.

The project’s April 23 performance at Eisenhower Auditorium culminates a weeklong residency by the musicians. The Center for the Performing Arts and its Penn State partners have planned an array of engagement activities.

“To a traditionalist, the Nile Project might look like an ungainly mélange: a gathering of musicians from 11 countries of the Nile basin, playing instruments that weren’t made to share a stage or a song,” writes Jon Pareles of the New York Times. “They included an Egyptian wooden flute, an oud, African harps, a thumb piano, a saxophone. But at Globalfest, the annual world-music showcase … , the Nile Project was a committed, euphoric international coalition. The musicians had worked out the nuances of modes and rhythms to join one another’s songs, no longer separated by geography or politics. Some of the music showed roots in Arabic culture, some in East African polyrhythms; the words were in various languages, the voices gentle or declamatory or cutting.”

The orchestra features percussion from Kenya, Uganda, and Egypt plus other instruments such as the masenko (single-stringed bowed lute), ney (end-blown flute), simsimiyya (plucked lyre), tanbura (long-necked stringed instrument), and adungu (arched harp).

Mina Girgis, who cofounded the project in 2011, was born in Paris and raised in Egypt. At 22, he enrolled at Florida State University, where he studied hospitality and ethnomusicology before going on to graduate school in California.

“We were interested in bringing musicians together from the 11 Nile countries to collaborate on creating music that would both help expand people’s cultural curiosity and musical curiosity in the Nile basin — about their river neighbors — and also facilitate conversation beyond music to get people to start talking more about the water conflict that we face and the water issues that we have to overcome together,” Girgis says.

The project unites instruments and musical traditions that weren’t historically connected.

“We’re certainly creating music that hasn’t been created before. This is a first in terms of bringing musicians from those 11 countries together,” Girgis says.

“Most of the world-music fusion projects … have given little attention to the process and more attention to the product. You bring musicians together that are masters in their own traditions, and they come together and they quickly cook up some fusion. You can still see the different styles. Most people don’t spend weeks educating the musicians in their respective styles so that you have a Ugandan who can play Egyptian maqam and an Egyptian who can play Ugandan polyrhythms on every song.”

Each year, the project musicians get together for a two-week residency. They also compose music when they’re on tour. In between, they meet online.  

“Every week we have a musician from the collective that develops a lesson, with the support of our musical director, and shares with everyone musical examples from their country and musical exercises that allow everybody else to be able to take that and absorb the music before we come to the residency,” Girgis says.

NPR named Aswan, the project’s first recording, one of the “five must-hear international albums” of 2013. A second album, Jinga, is slated for release this year.

Days Inn Penn State sponsors the concert. The Sidney and Helen S. Friedman Endowment also provides support. For tickets or information, visit or phone (814) 863-0255.






John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager of the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State.
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