The Nile Project: Producing Harmony In A Divided Region It began as a conversation over a beer. Now, a collaboration between musicians across the Nile basin has expanded to concert tours, albums and courses at universities in the U.S. and East Africa.

The Nile Project: Producing Harmony In A Divided Region

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The Nile is the longest river in the world. It's a vital source of drinking water, irrigation, jobs, electricity and transportation for the 11 countries it touches in East Africa. Nile waters are a source of stability, but they are also a source of conflict over how the water gets used and who gets to decide. Consensus might seem impossible, but a project started a half a world away in Oakland, California is trying to build a common language based on a love of the region's music. Julie Caine of member station KALW brings us the story.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: In a quiet park in Kampala, Uganda, 14 musicians from seven East African countries sit together under a tree.


LAWRENCE OKELLO: (Singing) Do, re, mi.

CAINE: They're working on an idea from Ugandan musician Lawrence Okello.

OKELLO: This is what I would suggest for this piece - that we have a conflict, and then all of us will keep on adding flavors from the different cultures, but maintaining like the water that flows.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Arabic spoken).

CAINE: The musicians speak many languages which means ideas and instructions have to get translated multiple times. They use different rhythms, even different tonal systems. And they play many instruments - Sudanese harps, Kenyan kettle drums, Ethiopian violins, Burundian thumb pianos, Egyptian flutes.


CAINE: But under this tree, they're listening for what's shared - conflict that resolves into harmony.


CAINE: This is the Nile Project. It's an education and development initiative that uses music to help find new ways to share an ancient resource.

OKELLO: The idea is just to go to your culture. Give us that authentic touch of it. Ah, that is Egypt. Mm, that is Rwanda. And then we come back to the Nile and we proceed. We have a journey to make.


CAINE: That journey started in a bar in Oakland, California.


CAINE: Egyptian-American ethnomusicologist Mina Girgis and his friend, Ethiopian-American singer, Meklit Hadero, were talking about the musical connections between their two countries.

MINA GIRGIS: You know, in London or New York or San Francisco, we are each other's neighbors and friends and coworkers. And the fact that folks from everywhere are in those places means that we can hear each other's music. We can grow beyond being strangers in a very every day way. And this just isn't true of life on the continent of Africa.

CAINE: Back home in East Africa, Hadero says there are too many cultural barriers. But Girgis says there is a point of connection.

GIRGIS: For me, the connection was the Nile. It's a river. It's an organism made of 437 million people, 11 countries, some of the poorest countries in the world.

CAINE: Right now the Nile more often divides than unites. For example, last year Ethiopia diverted Nile waters to begin construction on Africa's biggest hydroelectric plant. Egypt worried that this would cut off most of the country's drinking water, and the government threatened military action. Against a backdrop of conflicts like this, Girgis and Hadero had what they jokingly call a very San Francisco idea.

MEKLIT HADERO: Why don't we create a project that brings musicians from across the river together? Wouldn't that be amazing?

CAINE: They quickly realized music could be a door opener for a much larger project - one aimed at sustaining a finite resource and fostering a new regional identity.

HADERO: We can be a kind of model for the world that we want to see and the Nile basin that we'd like to see.

CAINE: Very San Francisco.


MILES JAY: I love the way that just kind of evolved.

CAINE: Under the direction of Nile Project musical director Miles Jay, the songs written here will become part of a concert tour and album called "Jinja" after the Ugandan town at the source of the Nile. Last year's album "Aswan" took its name from the Egyptian town at the rivers end.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in foreign language).

CAINE: Aswan got international attention and helped organizers move forward. Nile Project fellowships will support students at four East African universities. Programs at Boston University, Stanford, Penn State, and others, as well as a K-12 curriculum are in progress, all tied to the Nile project's 2015 concert tour.


CAINE: At the musicologist meeting, Girgis says that this is what they had in mind all along.

GIRGIS: Is it a music project? Is it an environment project? Is it a dialogue project? In reality, it's all of those things.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Arabic).

CAINE: The song that brought down houses across the Nile project's Africa tour mixes Arabic lyrics, Ugandan and Kenyan rhythms, Egyptian and Ethiopian vocals and Sudanese, Rwandan and Burundian strings.


CAINE: What started out as two friends sharing a beer and talking music has grown into a mix of cultures created by musicians and audiences who might never have met otherwise. For NPR News, I'm Julie Caine.


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