California’s water woes have been in the news. But with its concert at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on April 26, the Nile Project aims to direct your thoughts toward H2O in another part of the world.
A music-and-education initiative founded in 2011, the Nile Project is anchored by a collective of 27 instrumentalists and singers from Egypt, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda and seven other countries along the Nile River Basin. The group’s shows feature regional languages, traditions and instruments (the oud, the kawala, the Ugandan adungu). After a show in January, the New York Times called the performance “euphoric.”
The Nile Project also works with universities to mount programs designed to increase knowledge about the river’s ecosystem. The music, too, is meant to have an educational and civic dimension: By showcasing the collaboration of musicians from different countries, the project’s leaders hope to nurture the kind of cross-cultural dialogue and understanding that could help prevent water-related conflicts.
The countries along the Nile “have a history of dispute over water-resource allocation — which country has the right to develop infrastructure and build dams on the Nile, which would affect downstream countries,” says Egyptian ethnomusicologist and music producer Mina Girgis, who founded the Nile Project with Meklit Hadero, an Ethiopian American singer.
Girgis, who grew up in Cairo and now lives in San Francisco, said by phone from a tour stop in Chicago that the idea for the project germinated after he visited Tahrir Square in the early days of the Arab Spring and found himself yearning to contribute to the welfare of his native land. After returning to California, he attended a concert by an Ethiopian musician and realized, he said, “that there could be room for this cross-cultural musical conversation among the countries sharing the Nile Basin.”
A relative lack of understanding and shared culture among the countries has exacerbated the threat posed by the region’s historical water disputes, Girgis says. (One set of concerns from recent years has stemmed from the construction of the massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Last month, in an attempt to ease tensions, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed an agreement related to the dam.) Girgis says he thinks musical collaboration can build trust and create “space for understanding, for empathy and [for] the political will” that might allow countries to collaborate on environmental and other challenges.
Since its founding, the Nile Project has held residencies in which artists from the Nile Basin nations have absorbed each other’s musical traditions and brainstormed new work. A 2013 residency in Aswan, Egypt, culminated in an album, “Aswan.”
The initiative’s current U.S. tour features 12 of its musicians, and the performance here will be complemented by three discussion panels on topics related to the Nile and musical activism.
Richard Wagner might turn over in his grave if he heard “The Ride of the Valkyries” as performed by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. On the other hand, maybe he would take the matter in stride.
There’s a lighthearted vibe about the pop and classical selections the 30-year-old orchestra has turned into YouTube hits. And the group’s Web site declares that the orchestra was formed, in 1985, “as a bit of fun.” But some idealism also fueled its founding, says George Hinchliffe, the group’s director and co-founder.
For one thing, an egalitarian emphasis has always been part of the concept, Hinchliffe said by phone from London. “[In] pop music and classical music, often it’s about the cult of celebrity and stardom and having a key figure,” he says, like a lead singer or a famous virtuoso. “We were aiming to have something that was a bit more evenhanded.”
Perhaps partly on the strength of that democratic impulse, the orchestra, which typically performs as an ensemble of seven or eight, includes four original members. The orchestra has sold out shows around the globe, released CDs and DVDs, and turned ukulele renditions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” into Internet sensations.
“When we started, a lot of people thought it was a toy,” Hinchliffe says. “And from our point of view, that was a good thing, because it could be viewed, at least in the context we were using, as the outsider instrument. . . . It was almost like a blank slate. Whatever you played, it seemed like it was on the wrong instrument. And therefore you could have a new approach to that piece of music and connect to the music itself, rather than the traditions and conventions associated with that genre.”
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain brings its philosophy — and its humor — to the Music Center at Strathmore on April 26. A Wagner rendition is not out of the question.
Wren is a freelance writer.
The Nile Project April 26 at 7 p.m. at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Dekelboum Concert Hall, University of Maryland, University Boulevard and Stadium Drive, College Park. Tickets: $10-$25. 301-405-2787. theclarice.umd.edu.
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain April 26 at 4 p.m. at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets: $18-$48. 301-581-5100. www.strathmore.org.