Take me to the river

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A unique musical collaboration heads to Bradford next week as part of the Yorkshire Festival. Yvette Huddleston reports.

If ever there was a venture that perfectly illustrates the way in which music can break down barriers and bring people together in greater understanding, it is the Nile Project.

A unique musical collaboration between musicians from the eleven countries across the Nile River Basin, it is one of the highlights of this summer’s Yorkshire festival and is heading to Bradford Alhambra next weekend for its European premiere.

Now in its fourth year, the Nile Project was founded by Egyptian musicologist Mina Girgis with the aim of not only making beautiful music that is representative of the Nile watershed, but also raising awareness of the hydro-political challenges that the participating countries share. It provides a blueprint for new ways in which Nile citizens can co-operate to create mutually-beneficial sustainable solutions to their water issues.

“We feel that through music, making it and experiencing it, a cultural empathy is created,” says Ethiopian-American saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, musical director of the Project. “We have a number of musicians who are composers or band leaders or experts in their own cultural music and we have been successful in selecting musicians who have a history of this kind of musical collaboration.”

This particular cohort of musicians came together for a gathering in January this year, having already been in contact over social media, and got to work. “We had been sharing things like musical recordings and videos and exercises so that when we met we could start making music together straight away,” says Mekonnen. “We started off by a kind of ‘speed dating’ so we would put musicians in pairs –a singer from Sudan with a fiddler from Ethiopia, a musician from Tanzania with one from Egypt. The next day we went from pairs to three or four piece groups.

“By the end of the first week we had started to put larger groups together. Within the thirteen musicians there are sub-groups and not everyone plays on every song, so it’s quite a juggling act. We are all learning from each other.

“That’s part of the magic – we never really know what we are going to get. I don’t think anyone leaves the Nile Project unchanged. We are all deeply affected by it.”

That sentiment is confirmed by Kenyan drummer and percussionist Kasiva Mutua. “The Nile Project has changed my life basically,” she says. “It has changed my attitudes towards my neighbouring countries and the music of my neighbouring countries. Before I didn’t have any idea what Egyptian or Ethiopian music sounded like. It is about empathy and being curious. If you are connected by a river, you must be connected. I have made friends but more importantly I see the role I play in the river and I feel more connected to water issues. I now realise that what I do in Kenya affects somebody in Egypt; it has made me more environmentally conscious and a better human being.”

Prior to this first ever European tour there have been tours of Africa and America and the response from audiences has been unanimously positive. “I feel like every continent we go to we inspire more people,” says Mutua. “Audiences are amazed, thrilled, excited and moved to tears. Everybody is very curious and we get so many questions at the end of each show. When they watch the show they see all these different instruments and they hear the sounds of these countries. They get to hear what the Nile sounds like and at the same time they leave knowing something about the issues affecting the region.”

Described by the New York Times as ‘a committed, euphoric international coalition’, the Nile Project is making a positive difference to the lives of people living along the world’s longest river in terms of raising awareness and initiating dialogue. It is also a celebration of the river’s rich cultural diversity.

“At the end of the day what we really want to communicate on stage is joy,” says Mekonnen. “There is a lot of joy and celebration of our shared experiences. We hope people walk away feeling that joy but also that they will have conversations about what the group is doing and how we can all learn more about each other’s cultures.”

The countries represented in the current cohort of musicians in the Nile Project are Egypt, Sudan, Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania.

Kasiva Mutua says that audiences can look forward to a real treat when they come to see the show. “They can expect to hear great music and to see people’s personalities expressed on stage. I always think it is like eating a really good pizza because it is made up of so many great ingredients; a beautiful melange of music.”

The Nile Project, Bradford Alhambra, June 18. Tickets 01274 432000 or visit www.bradford-theatres.co.uk