The River Nile, Seen Through The Musicians Who Live Along It
It started with a conversation over a drink between two friends in San Francisco––Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter and Senior TED Fellow Meklit Hadero and Egyptian ethnomusiculogist Mina Girgis. How could it be, they wondered, that neither Ethopians nor Egyptians knew anything about each other’s music considering that they are both near neighbors and also share one of the greatest cultural connectors of all time, the River Nile?
Running through 11 countries for over 4,130 miles, the Nile is our planet's longest river. Its endpoint in Egypt was once considered the center of the world, and throughout history, empires have continually divided the region in order to plunder its wealth. While the region is home to over 200 million people who could understand, share, and admire each other's cultures along the mighty Nile, the fact is they don’t. Cultural curiosity depends upon culture being shared, yet between Nile countries, it’s just not happening––at least that the Nile people realize.
Mina and Meklit’s initial conversation gained momentum and quickly gave rise to The Nile Project, the aim of which is to curate cross-cultural collaborations among musicians from the Nile region, fostering cultural connections among the people living along the river to help tackle their water-based environmental challenges. Recognizing that music is one of the most inspirational forces of cultural exchange, the plan was to curate a musical ensemble made up of the best musicians the Nile Basin had to offer and to tour the River Nile, the source lakes and eventually both the United States and Europe. The first step? Find and meet the musicians.
Just as Mina and Meklit were beginning to plan the scout trip to five of the 11 Nile Basin countries to find the musicians, Meklit came to Washington, DC on tour to play a show at the Kennedy Center. Meklit is a longtime friend of mine so I offered her a room at my place to crash while she was in town. As soon as I heard about The Nile Project and the upcoming scout trip I told her:
“You know there is a great film here and I’d love to make it.”
We agreed to keep talking while I would do everything possible to find the necessary financing.
Among many other approaches, I applied for a National Geographic All Roads Seed Grant and was fortunate enough to be awarded two days before our flight was scheduled to depart and so it began.
I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel fairly extensively in my life but I’d never been awestruck by a sense of history on a scale even approaching what I felt in Egypt and along the Nile. Hyperbole is hard to escape when you find yourself in a part of the world as old as time, on the river you read about in the Guiness Book of World Records as a kid, or next to pyramids that signify the cradle of civilization. It’s hard to wrap your mind around. But there we were, in this place, attempting to record its beauty, its character, its history and its present with its music and its musicians as our lens.
In Cairo there is a place called Makan which in Arabin also means place, just a place, where, as its founder Ahmed Saad El-Maghraby says, there is no stage, there is no microphone, there is just a cup of tea. People gather quietly to take in fabulous East African music, share tea and often join the musicians in dance. Ahmed is one of the few Africans who not only recognizes the value and beauty of East African music but has also created a way to curate and share it. And as he so eloquently put it:
“The Nile is like a big tree so I think that the idea of creating something about the music of the Nile is very important because it will give us the design of this tree, from the roots. It is very important not only to see the fruit of the tree, but also to see the roots, to understand where the fruit comes from."
Shooting in cinema verité style, we captured stories of great East African musicians from Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda who are yearning to create cultural dialogue with their Nile brethren. By uniquely reflecting the people and sharing their cultures, my hope is that LIFEBLOOD will help allow the people of the Nile to realize the power of the cultural connections they share rather than the borders that divide them.
This project is part of GOOD's Saturday series Push for Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.