Video: Nile Project founder Mina Girgis on how music can be used for bridging

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June 05, 2019

Mina Girgis, an Egyptian musicologist and Haas Institute senior fellow, presents on his Nile Project collective during a talk on June 5, 2019 at UC Berkeley. Learn more about the Nile Project at http://nileproject.org/

Transcript:

Mina Girgis: Today I wanted to give you a little bit of background about the Nile Project, but kind of frame the Nile Project in a way that is relevant to you. Obviously many of you are not really contemplating starting musical projects around water issues, so I think the way I'd like to have this conversation is more as a case study of how music can be used as a tool for bridging. If you had a whole toolkit with different ways you can create interventions based on the problem that you're having, where does music fit into that? Music can do certain things, cannot do other things, so I want to talk a little bit about that because this is my background, ethnomusicology, I've looked a lot at where is music best used.
Mina Girgis: The Nile Project is just a case study, and I'll tell you a little bit about my experience with starting the Nile Project, with what has worked, what hasn't worked, what can be coming out of that experience, and where we can take it further. First, I wanted to ask you, did you get the chance to watch the video that Elsadiq shared with everyone about the Nile Project?
Mina Girgis: Anyone did not get to see it, and it's okay if you didn't. Yeah. Would you like to watch it first to start, to get a sense of what it is? This is the video. I'll just introduce what the video is. We were having annual residencies with artists, and these artists were musicians from the 11 Nile countries. They came to play music or to create music together, but they didn't know as much as we would like them to know about the Nile. There was a gap about their own environmental education to understand why we're doing what we're doing. The video came out of a conversation I was having with them, where we were talking about some of these problems so they can be included in the conversation. We'll start the video and then we'll talk afterwards, and if you can't hear, you can come sit next to the speaker here. Sorry, it's a small speaker.
Mina Girgis: How much is the water of the Nile? How much water do you think we use for drinking, and for washing and for all of the individual purposes? So how much does agriculture use? Why are they fighting over water? Is it to drink or to grow food? We have the highest growing populations in the world. We will double. So if we're fighting over this water because we don't have enough food today, imagine what will happen in 25 years. So we do have a water problem in the Nile, and this problem is complicated by the fact that there are more countries sharing, and these countries are also dealing with a lot more challenges.
Mina Girgis: Who knows the countries that the Nile runs through?
Speaker 3: Uganda or Tanzania.
Speaker 4: Continue to go up to Kenya. Oh, Congo of course, small part of Congo, [inaudible 00:03:43]
Speaker 5: Then Ethiopia. There is a source at Ethiopia that also feeds into, then goes up to Egypt and dumps itself.
Mina Girgis: These people that were trying to discover the source of the Nile, why were they trying to find the source of the Nile, do you know?
Male: [Arabic 00:04:02].
Speaker 6: The more you have control on the water, the more you win, somehow because everybody is depending on water.
Mina Girgis: How good is the government at managing its resources?
Speaker 7: [Arabic 00:04:21].
Speaker 8: [Arabic 00:04:46].
Speaker 9: (Singing) Okay, [Arabic 00:04:54], okay. (Singing) Okay, okay, okay, and now-
Male: [Arabic 00:05:23].
Speaker 9: Massage.
Male: Oh, my God.
Speaker 10: It's nice.
Speaker 10: Have you heard there are political problems in the Nile? Why they want to build the Grand Renaissance there?
Speaker 11: Ethiopia is trying to generate more electricity, and for that reason they feel like they should build a dam on the Nile.
Speaker 10: But I mean look what they're calling it's the ... I mean, the Grand Dam or the Renaissance Dam, there's more than just what they're building, it's also probably about power like we've been talking about pride of the people to say, "Look at this massive thing that we built."
Speaker 11: It's from our country. We have 85% from Blue Nile, you know.
Speaker 10: Yeah, and you don't use any of it.
Speaker 11: We didn't use, so we have to use a little bit.
Speaker 10: A little bit, okay.
Speaker 11: Yes.
Speaker 5: When you're generating electricity, it's just you're building that pressure of the water and then you release the water, then what's the problem if you're releasing the water eventually?
Mina Girgis: What is happening with the Silk?
Speaker 11: [Arabic 00:06:32].
Mina Girgis: These are all theories, but what is the solution? (Singing)
Speaker 5: Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt, I think are divided equally between these countries.
Speaker 9: If there's a resource the more [inaudible 00:07:28] come.
Speaker 5: But the question comes back again, do we need the Nile like as Kenya?
Speaker 10: I wouldn't ... I don't like the idea of removing the DRC, Rwanda-Burundi from the conversation. I think that everyone should be a part of the conversation.
Speaker 12: If we think about Sudan, and think about Ethiopia or think about Tanzania, I don't think that's ... this might work out, we all need to focus about, "Okay, we are all African." We remove all the borders, you know, and try to divide equal ... I think that's might be a good solution.
Speaker 5: I mean, as we said, what you do upstream definitely affects downstream. Countries like Kenya, and Burundi, and Rwanda should be encouraged to do a filling station, and safe methods of cultivation just so to better the climate around these areas where the source is started from, because if we ruin everything in Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania, in DRC, the levels of water will definitely be affected.
Mina Girgis: Countries that have more military power, and more political power like Egypt don't have the water, so they all have to talk, so that makes it more interesting, more complicated, and more hopeful actually, because we have to talk at some point. We have to solve this problem.
Speaker 5: University students with the university program, these are the people who are, like have the psych to work on creative solutions.
Mina Girgis: We have intelligent people that have been working on this problem for the last 20, 30 years, and this is the most complicated water conflict in the world. We need to come up with creative solutions because we don't have enough water for everyone.
Speaker 13: [Arabic 00:09:22].
Mina Girgis: What does this music that we're making have to do with these issues that we've been talking about?
Male: Concert is two-hours thing, you know, and we can't convince everybody, they are maybe [inaudible 00:09:53] enjoy music, he bought his ticket. (Singing).
Mina Girgis: It's good to be skeptical, and I encourage you to say, "This is not working. This music is not going to go anywhere," or, "This music might go somewhere, but even if it's good music, I'll wait and see when we go to a concert how much it's affecting people." You never know, you know, if it touches the right person maybe. I think we're actually doing a lot more than that, so I think we should all feel confident that we're making an impact, how big that impact is, there is no way to know. Even if it's a small introduction or a pamphlet that says what the problem is, it can immediately start a dialog, like after you go see a good film or you go see a good concert you can't help but talk about it for days. (Singing)
Mina Girgis: We brought people from different countries, and we put them together in the same room, and they start talking about the Nile, what do you think will happen?
Male: Fist fight.
Mina Girgis: They will fight. They will argue about whose water it is, who is allowed to build a dam, and who is not. This is why we don't start with the conversation, this is why we start with the music.
Mina Girgis: Most projects that thought of African music, and brought Africans together, most of them were for places outside of Africa, so us, in Africa we never got to hear each other, but people in Europe, and people everywhere in North America, and other places where the world music industry exists got to hear all of us. That's because of the way that this industry was setup, and that was not giving us the experience of learning about each other. We're showing that we have a lot more in common than people know, than we thought before we came into this. This is the idea of what The Nile Project is doing, the musical curiosity leads to musical understanding, in the same way musical understanding leads to cultural understanding. I become more interested in Dawit because he plays an instrument that looks like [inaudible 00:12:13], and from there we can have a conversation. We can meet after the concert, we can break that stage barrier that does not happen in the world music industry. (Singing)
Mina Girgis: The Nile Project is about creating a conversation. It's about bringing everyone together, being for or against the dam is like being for or against a certain rhythm or a certain [inaudible 00:13:21] or maqam that's not what we're about here. We're about bringing them all, putting them all together, and getting everyone to share their opinion and their dialog. Lots of people, like you spend your whole day perfecting your music, and your instrument, and your voice, there are people that spend as much time, and more thinking about this issues. Welcome to The Nile Project, and to be continued.
Male: [Arabic 00:13:51].
Mina Girgis: I haven't seen this video in a while. You already heard me speak for 15 minutes, so I don't know. I'll try to make this short, but I wanted to start before we get into the Nile, and the Nile conflict, I wanted to start with a little bit of my background, how I got into this.
Mina Girgis: I grew up in Egypt, and then I came to the US for my undergraduate. I was studying Hotel Management in Florida, and a friend of mine invited me to play samba in a group, and that's how I stumbled upon ethnomusicology. I got into Brazilian music, then I got into Balinese music, and got into Indian music, and I wanted to do this for a living so they told me, "You could be an ethnomusicologist," so I studied ethnomusicology. This is how I got into Santa Barbara for grad school, and I was studying gypsies. I was interested in the way the story of the gypsies migration was presented in the world music industry. Anybody knows where the gypsies come from? Guess, take a guess.
Male: India?
Mina Girgis: India, okay, yes, as far as we know today the gypsies have come from India. For a long time, for maybe 500, 600 years people thought the gypsies are coming from Egypt, that's why they're called gypsies, the same etymology, the root of the word. Then a linguist in Germany discovered that the gypsies actually share a language that's Sanskrit-derived similar to modern Hindi-derived languages. We started kind of tracing where the gypsies come from, and discovered the gypsies actually left India around 1000 A.D., and then they showed up in Europe in 1600. Most people were kind of like just describing them as Egyptians, so they had to live up to that stereotype. They were, from the very beginning othered, and the gypsies were victims of the Holocaust, if you know about what happened in the World War, but not many people know about the story of the Roma with the gypsies.
Mina Girgis: I was more interested in how this whole Indian origin of the gypsies' migration, how it played into orientalizing them, further othering them in the world music industry. Instead of actually trying to understand gypsies by understanding where they actually come from, and relating to them in a contemporary way, a lot of people were kind of indulging in more orientalizing of the gypsies. Now I understand why they are so different, because they come from India. It was a failure, a well-intended failure, if I can use some of the othering and belonging vocabulary, in getting people to really empathize with gypsies.
Mina Girgis: Now it's really hard to divide people into the ones that orientalize, and the ones that don't orientalize, it's more complicated. But what I was really trying to understand is the complexity of these undertakings, these big projects that claim to have an impact beyond music, a social impact, and how does this impact lend, how does it actually play for or against the people that were onstage. I ended it with kind of a conundrum, a paradox, I didn't really know which way we should go, support these musicians that are coming from India, that their livelihoods are relying on the fact that they are presented as gypsies onstage or do we say, "No, this whole project is further orientalizing all gypsies, and is not really helping the Roma that are paying the price in Europe, so we should not do that?"
Mina Girgis: Now the Roma activist said we shouldn't use music. Music is not doing gypsies any service. I could go with both ways, I manage the musicians that are coming from India, I saw how this has changed their lives, so I could see the complexity of the issue. In 2002, I got to be a fellow at the Smithsonian Center for Folk Life and Cultural Heritage. The Smithsonian produces the largest festival in the United States every summer on the National Mall, and that particular festival was about the Silk Road. Yo-Yo Ma, who has been to Cal Performance, if you're a student here you might have seen Yo-yo Ma, he comes here every year, started the Silk Road Project in 1998. The idea was to bring together artists from all the countries that have shared the historical Silk Road from China and Japan, all the way to Italy and Marco Polo and Europe, and it was a trade of silk, but also it was a lot of cultural exchange that happened on that route.
Mina Girgis: They produced the festival on the National Mall, and for two weeks they had about 500 participants from 25 different countries that have never met, whose traditions for thousands of years have been influenced by each other, silk weavers, paper makers, cooks, nomads with their camels, all kinds of people. To me, it was a really profound experience of kind of seeing how this festival allows people to better understand the geography of a region of the world. A region that actually connects multiple continents, and how that affects people's understanding of each other. It goes way beyond, "I'm white, I'm black, I am Asian, I'm not Asian," and you start seeing that it's ... the interesting stuff is way below the surface. For every person there was one profound experience that happen, like it wasn't the same for everybody.
Mina Girgis: I remember facilitating a jam session, a biblical jam session between an Uzbek cantor, a Jewish cantor, and an Assyrian biblical reciter, and they were talking about their different traditions, and people were crying in the audience, and everyone was like, "Wow." This is happening 2002, the US has just invaded Afghanistan, there were Afghani musicians singing on stage, and everyone repeating after them. [Inaudible 00:20:27] was there, it was great. Condoleezza Rice was there. There were lots of really interesting people in the audience, but there were like these pregnant moments where you see all of these forces colliding, and you wonder like, "Will these politicians change their mind when they go see this concert? Are they the people that we should be speaking to or are we talking to citizens because we think that the citizens will change their minds, and they will vote for somebody else?"
Mina Girgis: It's complicated, and a lot of that I didn't ... I didn't realize that a lot of that will come into play with The Nile Project, but many years later the revolution happened in Egypt. I was running Zambaleta, the world music school here in the Mission District, and I decided I want to go back and see what's happening, and participate in the revolution somehow as an ethnomusicologist there is not much room for political work. I was there, and I was really interested in the music that was happening in the square. There was a lot of music, a lot more than Occupy. I don't know if you were here for Occupy, but there was a lot of music happening in the square, a lot of new music, a lot of old music from the 1919 revolution in Egypt. There was something really special happening, and there was, I would say a cultural revolution more than a political revolution on the streets.
Mina Girgis: I came back after the revolution, spending the summer in Tahrir Square, and a friend of mine who went to UC Berkeley, an ethnomusicologist, was playing with a Debo Band, an Ethiopian band that was visiting from Boston, and I went to the concert still jet lagged, just arrived from Egypt, and I was just shocked that I'm seeing this Ethiopian music here. I just came back from Egypt, Ethiopia is a neighbor, it's not a land neighbor because Sudan is between Egypt and Ethiopia, but it's a water neighbor. I've heard about the rumors about Ethiopia building the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, but no one is really paying attention, because right now everyone is worried about the political situation in Egypt, and here is an Ethiopian band on stage.
Mina Girgis: I came out of the concert trying to figure out like there is something there. I don't know what it is, and it took me a couple of weeks to crystallize something about what I saw, and it was really kind of that bridging that I felt was necessary, that bridging between people who, like I mentioned in the video, would only meet in Europe or would only meet in the United States on a world music festival stage, but will never actually meet in their respective countries. It's way more expensive to travel within Africa, and I don't know if you've ever tried to travel within Africa, touring in Africa is kind of almost impossible. We've done a few tours and people would look at us like you're kind of crazy, there is no infrastructure, the audiences are so disconnected from one another, they listen to completely different music, and it's actually a lot more expensive than traveling in the United States. No wonder people are much less connected then than they are here.
Mina Girgis: We started the idea of The Nile Project with the intention of building the Silk Road Project of the Nile. We didn't know what we were talking about. We were thinking, "This is what we've seen, this is what we know," so we'll do that in the Nile. Quickly thereafter the project started evolving and changing based on the context. There were lots of differences, the Silk Road was working on bringing people who may have never met, but their relationship is that their traditions traveled along the Silk Road. They were silk weavers from all of these different countries or paper makers from all of these different countries. People that invented pasta in China showed up in Italy, or pita bread in Armenia showed up in Italy, pizza comes from Armenian pita bread, but it was all about cultural connection. It was highlighting a cultural, historical-cultural connection that actually happened thousand years ago.
Mina Girgis: In the case of the Nile, it was the opposite story, it was people who have shared a river, but who have not had the cultural connection because we did not really know where the Nile comes from until ... Guess what year we mapped the whole Nile? Anyone?
Female: 2011.
Mina Girgis: What's that?
Female: 2011.
Mina Girgis: 2011, nice answer. Thank you. 1864. We knew about the Blue Nile coming from Ethiopia, and flowing into Sudan and Egypt, but we did not know where the White Nile comes from. 1864, if you just think of there were Victorian explorers going across the ocean, looking for the new world, and that has already happened, they discovered North America, discovered ... I know we're being politically correct here, but this had not happened in the Nile yet. That awareness, the geographical and cultural awareness that came around the Nile Basin came much later on, and the Nile moved ... In 1864, the Nile literally moved from the realm of gods, every country in the Nile has a god of the Nile, because the Nile floods once a year, and it's something you cannot stop, into the realm of hydro politics, into the realm of like, "Now we can control this water. Now we know how to use it to our advantage, and take advantage of other people or make sure that we get the most out of the resource."
Mina Girgis: This is kind of my trajectory into this, I'm an ethnomusicologist, and I didn't know anything about the Nile. I knew that I grew up in Egypt, and I could list maybe three out of the 11 countries of the Nile. When I started The Nile Project it was really kind of a beginner's mind going into all of these. When we first started The Nile Project a friend of mine suggested that I go speak to his colleague, who is a professor of international water law in the University of the Pacific. He teaches in Sacramento, Stephen McCaffrey is his name, is the person who drafted the treaty for all the Nile countries to negotiate or to agree on for the last 10 years. I went to speak to him, and he was so exalted about The Nile Project.
Mina Girgis: Now, I didn't know anything about the Nile yet, I was just starting the project, and he was so enthusiastic about The Nile Project. He told me at the end, "What you're doing might actually have a lot more impact than all the years I've put into this." It was kind of like this big baggage to take on because I really didn't understand what was going on in the Nile. I knew there was a dam that was being built in Ethiopia, and Egyptians would probably freak out when the dam is built, but I didn't really understand the context as much. It took me years to actually understand what he meant by that.
Mina Girgis: I wanted to, kind of like, today maybe give you a little bit of background about the Nile, what's happening in the Nile Basin, and then share with you some of the work that we've done in The Nile Project. I know this is afternoon, and I don't want you to sleep in the process, this is a long story, so please, if you have any questions, if you have any thoughts let's make this a conversation. Let's make this as interactive as possible. I'll start with some ... Can I use the clicker or ...
Female: Yeah, use the clicker.
Mina Girgis: Oh, you got it, okay. I'll start with some of the geographical environmental background of the Nile. Like I was mentioning, there is two sources of the Nile, and you might not be able to see clearly here, but this is Ethiopia here, and there is a lake, this big blue dot here is called Lake Tana, and that's where the source of the Blue Nile starts. The Blue Nile that flows into Khartoum, where Elsadiq is from, and into Egypt, supplies 85% of the water of the Nile that goes into Sudan and Egypt. The other source is Lake Victoria, which is surrounded by Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, and it goes into Uganda, through South Sudan, and then ends in Khartoum, and then in Egypt, and that supplies 15% of the Nile water that goes into Sudan and Egypt.
Mina Girgis: The British colonized most of these countries during the African Scramble, first started with Egypt and Sudan, and then Churchill had the bright idea of protecting the roots of the Nile, and he said the Nile is like a palm tree, if you want to protect its fruit, which is the bread basket, Egypt and Sudan, you have to protect its roots. You start seeing why the British were investing so much into figuring out the source of the Nile, they really wanted to understand, and control the whole watershed, because obviously they wanted to protect all their resources in Egypt and Sudan. The reason why the British focused on East Africa, Kenya, Uganda, this whole area, was because of the Nile, it was really water-based. They thought in a systemic way that went beyond national borders, and we're having a hard time now figuring out what to do with these national borders, because the Nile doesn't really operate on a national scale, but our negotiations do.
Mina Girgis: For a long time the water distribution in the Nile was really based on the priorities of the British. Egypt and Sudan where most of the agriculture was happening, so the British made sure that none of the upstream protectorates would compromise any of these water resources. They made these treaties between these countries that gave Egypt and Sudan the lion share of the water, and none of the other countries could take any of this water. Now the only country that was not occupied by the British, of importance here was Ethiopia. The Ethiopians ... Ethiopia is a highland country so they're a hard country to colonize, that's why no one has colonized Ethiopia in the history of Africa. The Italians occupied Ethiopia for about six years, but the British armed the Ethiopians against the Italians because they wanted to make sure that there was no other European power that would compromise the Nile resources.
Mina Girgis: The treaties that we inherited from the 1800s and 1900s until today, that are part of the legal conundrum around the Nile conflict are remnants of that British Empire that ruled most of the Nile Basin. Now the negotiation is saying, is Egypt and Sudan saying, "Well, we've had these water resources historically, and we need these water resources to survive. We don't have any other sources of fresh water. You have Ethiopia 20 rivers, and it rains eight or nine months out of the year, so you could rely on many other water resources. All these other countries also have a lot of sources of water, that's where the Nile comes from. Why are you focusing on the Nile, and why would we be compromised now that you have the bandwidth to build your own hydroelectric infrastructure?" All these other countries upstream have a valid opinion. It's not us who signed these treaties, it was the British, and we were not part of this conversation, now we need to be a part of this conversation.
Mina Girgis: There's only in that part of the story there is a lot of baggage around race, around colonialism, around all kinds of forms of injustice, and othering that we're grappling with, and that is the reason why the countries of the Nile have not signed an agreement until today. That's why Steve McCaffrey felt like law can go only so far, but if people, like the people of these countries don't trust each other or don't have any potential goodwill that would allow them to cooperate, then the treaty is useless, it's not really going anywhere.
Mina Girgis: The Nile has ... is well-known for being the longest river in the world, but one of the big problems in the Nile is that it doesn't actually have a lot of water. This chart just gives you a sense of like the Amazon, the Nile has about 13% of the water that you have in the Amazon. The Nile has about 450 million people population, when I mentioned the population is going to double in 25 years, so it's estimated to be like about 900 million people in 25 years. The water resources are pretty limited right now. Egypt is under extreme water poverty, it's considered one of the water poorest countries in the world. You might not be able to see some of ... maybe we can move this a little bit so we can see.
Mina Girgis: We built this infographic just to simplify so many of these variables so people can see the contrast between the different countries' resources. Obviously this is not just water, this is fresh water, but also infrastructure, a lot of thar infrastructure comes from, or thanks to the British, Egypt has built the low ... the low dam was built by the British in 1905, and then there was the high dam that was built by Nasser in 1960. You can see the reality in each of these countries is extremely different. We're talking about like five of the 10 poorest countries in the world, Uganda, South Sudan, I mean it's really like challenged area of the world. When it comes to figuring out a solution that satisfies everyone, that is mutually beneficial you have to pay attention to what's going on, why does Ethiopia want to build the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa? It's because they really need electricity.
Mina Girgis: Our musicians don't really understand that until we went to Ethiopia, and power was going out like regularly for two, three times a day. The Egyptians were freaking out, they're like, "Well, electricity, we always have electricity in Egypt. We never think about it. We always have water, we never think about it." One-third of the problems in Ethiopia around water is drought, and one-third of the problem is this flooding because there is no infrastructure, catchment systems to allow them to basically keep some of these reserves for the drought periods. Over the last ... The funny part is when I asked Stephen McCaffrey, "Where do I start? You have a big, big bookshelf with a lot of water books, where do I start learning about the Nile?" I expected he would give me a book about the Nile, and he said, "No, start with Cadillac Desert." Anyone here is familiar with Cadillac Desert? Has read Cadillac Desert? Yeah, what is it about?
Female: It's about getting water to LA.
Mina Girgis: To LA?
Female: Yeah.
Mina Girgis: From up North?
Female: Yeah.
Mina Girgis: From East North?
Female: North.
Mina Girgis: North, yeah?
Female: Yeah.
Mina Girgis: From here?
Male: Owens Valley.
Mina Girgis: East of here, Sacramento?
Female: Yeah.
Mina Girgis: Yeah. It was water, water in California, it's a book about water in California, and I was like, "Wow, this is not really going to help me that much," but I read the book, watched the documentary, and I was blown away to see Haile Selassie in the inauguration of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River saying, "We want to build a dam like this on the Nile." Haile Selassie, so this is like 19 ... what? 30's? 40's? Roosevelt. This is like ... the connection is really fascinating. The Bureau of Water Reclamation that governs all water distribution in the Western United States was the consulting agency that decided where the dam would be built in Ethiopia on the Blue Nile. The relationship starting from learning about irrigation and irrigation systems in the Nile, and applying that in the Western United States Colorado River is called the American Nile. Then going back and taking that expertise to the Nile Basin, and the whole story with the British being kind of the force governing all of Nile countries, kind of starts moving a little bit into the US, the relationship with all of these different countries.
Mina Girgis: I'm not going to get into Sudan and South Sudan, but it has a lot to do with the Nile as well, and maybe, Elsadiq, you can tell us a little bit more about that afterwards. But it just gives you a sense of the complexity of the relationship between our life here in the United States, and how it relates to other parts of the world, in this case the Nile.
Mina Girgis: We wanted to kind of figure out how the music that we were supposed to create relates to this big story. From my work, and this is the reason why I was telling you about my work with the gypsies, and the Silk Road, I didn't want to do any world music project that is like going to sing kumbaya, and get a lot of white people to be happy about black people holding hands, and say the world is fine, and we go home after a Cal Performance's concert with this warm, tingly feeling that we've seen instruments from everywhere in the world that we've never seen before. That to me was repulsive. That's my nightmare. I just want to do anything except that.
Mina Girgis: It's challenging in the world music industry because the world music industry was invented, invented by a bunch of white people. I have nothing against white people, it's just the world music industry, in a bar called the Empress of Russia in England, one of them was Peter Gabriel, and they were actually well-intentioned. They wanted to figure out a way to market all of these music that defied the categories that you have in the record store. It's not reggae, it's not rock and roll, it's not jazz, it's not blues, where do we fit it? It was always kind of in the other shelf, so they had to figure out the name, and the names they were going through were like jungle music, tropical music, and somehow they ended up with world music. This is where world music started. It has evolved quite a bit, it has changed as people found those record shelves becoming more and more prominent. More people are interested in the sounds of the world, and realizing that the other part is probably much bigger than the non-other part.
Mina Girgis: With that process some dynamics have not changed, world music was still decided, and developed by white European, like Euro-centric producers to be presented mostly in countries that can afford to bring people from other countries, which were Europe, North America. Even though the subject of this music was people from all the other countries of the world, these people had nothing to do with the decisions about what they play, how long they play, how they are presented, speaking of how they are presented, the Rajasthanis that I worked with from India, that were presented as the origin of the gypsies, are not gypsies. They are not even gypsies, if there were gypsies in India, but the European producers wanted to find someone in India that looks like ... that appeals to the gypsy imagination. They found casts of beggars that wore colorful clothe, that are wild, and play music that sounds cool to the European ear, and decided they're going to make them the gypsies of Europe or gypsies of India to Europe.
Mina Girgis: There are lots of decisions that we really were not involved in as people from the periphery in this process. Here we were trying to create music, functional music, music by Africans for Africans, and the whole goal of the project was to perform in other African countries that would not get that chance to hear people from their respective countries. It took us a while to figure out what is that model of change, how do we actually figure out the logic of what's happening, and how we can start measuring it somehow to see if what we're doing works or doesn't work. I can't tell you if it works or it doesn't work, it has worked with some people, it didn't work with others. It's really kind of ... It's much more complicated than just a simple measurement tool, but we've tried to develop as many indicators as possible, and we've done more surveys than, I think, most world music projects do.
Mina Girgis: For us, the whole thing is about the way the cultural relationship evolves between people and their neighbors, along with the environmental relationship between people and the Nile River. I know very little about the Nile. When I meet an Ethiopian I started thinking about the Nile as I am getting to know that Ethiopian person. An Ethiopian and a Ugandan, even though they come from two different tributaries the Nile doesn't meet between the two of them, they are interested in the river based on their relationship as people. The musicians that we had on stage humanize the river in a way that made the river interesting to someone who is not a hydrologist or a naturally water-interested person.
Mina Girgis: Water is very complex because water is something that's very easy to understand. We all drink water, fresh water especially, but it permeates all aspects of life and all disciplines so it's really hard to wrap your head around all the aspects that come into the water conversation. When we started doing this work I realized that the water conversation is really distributed, the politicians don't really think so much about the hydrology, don't think so much about environmental education. Everybody is kind of in their own world, and we're trying to bring this people together, and trying to make sense of what ... how this music would be functional. It had to be a multi-disciplinary conversation, and bringing in music as a noble way of addressing this issue.
Mina Girgis: For us, the music played a very specific role, it did not really do anything except trigger cultural curiosity, and environmental curiosity. If our concert was successful people would want to speak after the concert, people would want to ask questions about the Nile. It was not a message-driven awareness campaign, which is the typical way music has been employed by most of the international development agencies. We want to tell people to wear condoms because of HIV so we're going to make a song about it. I don't believe in that approach personally. I feel like it's a bit naïve, and it's not necessary ... I mean you don't really [inaudible 00:44:40] to make a song about it so people can wear condoms. I mean you need to tell people, maybe an infographic or some statistics will make sense.
Mina Girgis: To me, it kind of like lowers the level of intelligence of your interlocutor, but what was happening here was nonverbal, because actually we were singing in so many different languages, and most people didn't really understand what was going on onstage. You had like a song that has four or five languages, if you're from Egypt you're going to understand the Arabic part, if you're from Eritrea you're going to understand the Eritrean part, but you won't understand the other verses. Our concert experience was a nonverbal experience, it was more about seeing what's happening on stage, these musicians from all these different countries, not being introduced as where they're from before we start playing, and people starting to figure out what's happening. This is the Nile microcosm, and I don't really understand all the layers, and as the concert unfolds you start basically unraveling these layers, start understanding these relationships.
Mina Girgis: There will be one song, a Sufi song about ... and you have people from Ethiopia, people from Sudan, people from Egypt, and you have Tzar 00:45:50], like a spirit possession song with people from different countries. Then you have a song that has Nubians and Swahili people, and [inaudible 00:45:58], like interesting connections that are like people are drawing across all these different countries, that the music was basically highlighting. Even if you don't really understand what they're saying it doesn't matter, some of the songs actually were like ... One song was about the guy's grandma, his grandma's house was cold, and he always would sing the song, and people would think this is really a heartfelt song about the Nile, and it was actually about how he felt cold in his grandma's house. We didn't actually asked the musicians to write anything about the Nile, we wanted them to make music that's authentic, that express their relationship with one another, and their experiences in The Nile Project. The songs came up, it came out about everything, and for us that was authentic music. That was really what was happening among these people.
Mina Girgis: For us, the music was just like a vehicle to get us to the curiosity, but once people have questions, if we don't actually offer them an easy and tangible way to answer these questions they're going to go home, and some of them might look up Wikipedia pages, and some of them might checkout some Al Jazeera documentaries, and some won't. That's why we wanted to make sure that there are these opportunities where people could have the conversation right after the concert, and that's where the concept of residencies at universities started, where we would have these master classes, workshops, lecture demonstrations, panels, in all of the different fields that would interest different audiences so they can have these conversations after The Nile Project concert, and start thinking a little bit more about this.
Mina Girgis: It's incredible, the amount of misunderstandings that exists around the Nile, conspiracy theories to historical misunderstandings, to racial baggage. One of the clear themes that kept coming up were upstream or Sub-Saharan countries versus Egypt. Egyptians are Arabs, and Sub-Saharan countries are not, and they're black, and it was a racial baggage question. It was the Egyptians have conspired with slaves traders against us, and now Egyptians conspire with the UN against refugees that are also mistreated in Egypt, and racism did exist in Egypt. There is nothing to hide about that, but it was incredible when we had our first residency in Aswan, and a lot of Ethiopians and Ugandans, and people like that came to Aswan, and they found Nubian people, Egyptians who are black, like that complicated their whole dichotomy. I'm no saying that Nubians are like the most privileged population in Egypt, they have definitely their own trauma because of the Nile, but it just made people start seeing the problem a little differently.
Mina Girgis: For us, that kind of understanding, that learning preceded hand-in-hand between the cultural, learning about your neighbors, and also learning about your river. For us, all of that was eventually going towards, "So what can you do about it?" That took us actually a long time to figure out, it was one of the hardest things. You probably have asked yourselves these questions in very different spheres, but we were trying to figure out like how does this behavior change going to affect the reality in the Nile. That's where we started thinking if we can engage artists who may seem to be irrelevant to the Nile, and give them an opportunity to do something that is really relevant in the realm of triggering curiosity, how can we bring university students or professors, or researchers or other collaborators, journalists, educators, and figure out a similar vehicle for them to lend some of these learnings? To actually incorporate some of that impact in what they do on a daily basis.
Mina Girgis: That's when we started developing these, a network with different working groups around these different issues, and we had one of these network gatherings in Kenya, and Elsadiq was participating in it. It was for scholars from these different universities in the Nile Basin to collaborate on research. It was fascinating because we started the whole project saying, "You know, this is going to happen the way we make music in The Nile Project. You are the artists," and they're all professors in all different fields, "and this is how we're going to do it." They're like, "Okay, well, this sounds fascinating, but we don't know if that works in science." In two days we were able to come up with some pretty solid projects with realistic goals. Some of these scholars also happen to be on the other end of the table when they're negotiating for their countries. They always had this kind of antithetical relationship, they know each other, they've known each other for 20 years, but this was the first time they were actually working together as opposed to trying to achieve each of their agendas.
Mina Girgis: When we asked them, "How do we go from there?" Like, "Where do we take this, and where should it land?" They're like, "Anything except the Nile Basin Initiative," which is the governmental organization that is mandated with cooperation between the Nile countries. They're like, "If it goes there we're not going to get anything done, because this is a political organization, the political organization is not going to facilitate cooperation between these countries." It's fascinating to see that, scholars from these different countries agreed on not working in the only vehicle that was supposed to help them collaborate.
Mina Girgis: Our creative process that we developed was basically inspired by something called the U Process, that was developed by a professor in MIT. This is how it translated in music. The first week when we gathered the musicians who didn't know anything about each other, we had this music school that happened everyday during the daytime, where every musician got the chance to teach all the other musicians about their tradition. An Egyptian musician would teach about the maqam, which is a scale system from the Arab world, and then you have the Sudanese who will teach rhythms from the Blue Nile and the White Nile, and how they met and turned into something else in Khartoum. Then the Ethiopians and the Ugandans, and so on and so forth. Go ahead.
Male: [Inaudible 00:52:40] that people were apart, [inaudible 00:52:41] that is that people are part of working groups or students or-
Mina Girgis: This is like for the ... Well, we did this for the musician's residency. This specific diagram is for the musician's residency, but we did the same thing for the scholars. It was like following the same U process, but we did presentations where the hydrologist were speaking about their research, the economist was speaking about the research, so it was basically ... the first stage was for everyone to download where they come from, and to give everyone an opportunity to see how they see the problem from their respective point of view.
Mina Girgis: That was really helpful in two ways, on the level of musicians it humbled everyone, because we were working with the best musicians in all of these different countries. Everyone comes from their respective country thinking they are the best, and they don't know what these other people do, but it can't be better than what they do. All of a sudden I see my violin teacher who is like one of the best violin teachers in ... violinist in Egypt, and a professor at the Arab Music Institute for theory and composition, struggling to figure out Ugandan rhythms. Then the Ugandans are freaking out to figure out like all these dissonant notes in Arabic music. You see this humbling that's happening everyday, that allows everyone to basically stretch their capacities, and in the process also give space to the others to convene with them, to work with them like, "I can't do this on my own. We need to do this together because I don't have the full recipe."
Mina Girgis: That was really conducive to bringing out new ideas, and those new ideas happened in the afternoon. We would have lectures in the morning, and then, or master classes, and then the master classes would be followed by these, we call them speed dates, they are hour-long collaboration sessions. The first year we had 18 musicians so we paired them into nine pairs, and they had an hour to do whatever they want, and some of them jammed, some of them just went on a walk, and chatted about their music, some of them composed a new piece. After an hour we switched the pairs, and then we switched them again for the third hour, so in three hours we had nine ... 27 pairs of people that were coming up with all kinds of ideas. Some of them came up with ideas for songs, and wanted to work on these songs with other musicians. Then on second day, after the lectures in the morning we did trios, so we had six trios, and then six trios, and then six trios. We had 18 songs in three hours on the second day.
Mina Girgis: These songs were like still very embryonic, they were like still early on, but we had ideas, and these ideas were coming from all the different directions, it was not coming from the center, it was coming from the periphery. That itself is a pretty radical departure from the way most music is made, most music is made by a composer, most classical music is made by a composer who's dead, and most contemporary music is made by a singer, band leader who is going to basically dictate how the music is going, and that really affects the dynamic on stage. You have the band leader, the person without whom this band would not be able to perform, and you have the bass player or the drummer, who is a side man, and the side man can be changed and the band will not change.
Mina Girgis: You have this hierarchy where someone is never going to consider themselves instrumental in making the music, and someone who is the band, and we wanted to change that dynamic, that mean there are bands that are more functional than this, but this is really the story you hear in most popular music. We wanted a band that would not be dictated by one person's agenda, because whoever that person was it would be perceived ... I mean we are setting ourselves up to be a metaphor, so if our metaphor is problematic then what are we trying to say here? If it's nonverbal then we are in trouble. We wanted the music to be coming from everyone, and in the process something amazing happened, two amazing things happened.
Mina Girgis: Every musicians was challenging their own respective creative boundaries. A percussionist who's never written a song was like, "Oh, you know what, I actually, I want to write a song, because actually most people here don't even understand the lyrics, so I can take that freedom. I can do something that I've never done before." "I am a bass player but I've never sang, so I want to sing." Everyone was really challenging their own comfort zone creatively, doing things they have never done before ever. We have so many people who never sang before that sang on The Nile Project stage. So many people who never played certain instruments, played this instrument on The Nile Project stage, and we were encouraging that. We were not saying, "Oh, no, you need to do what you do best, and that's all you have to do."
Mina Girgis: The second thing that happened was the incredible friendships that evolved between people that we would not expect to be friends, and it was a creative friendship. It was like two people that found each other in this residency, and even though they live very different lives they kind of connected musically, and that music changed the way they relate to one another, and that relationship changed the way they relate to the whole Nile Basin and their politics. That happened over and over and over again. For us, that was ... even if the music was not translating all of these on stage, I believe it was, but even if it wasn't what happened, the impact that happened among these musicians, these collaborators for us was an incredible bridging effort.
Mina Girgis: With the musical dates evolving from duos to trios, to quartets, the music was evolving, but it was evolving in separate clusters, and most people didn't know what else was happening. We would have, at the end of the first week we would have a big open mike where everyone performed for everyone, and then we would sit together for a long session to decide what we're going to keep, what we're not going to keep, what we're going to shrink, how are we going to put this puzzle together into a coherent concert. Even the arrangement, even the whole organization of the concert was coming from everyone together, so when we performed on stage people felt like this was my effort. I was included, I was ... you know this is, you know, I belong in HAAS terminology. I believe that this was the most important thing that The Nile Project was doing.
Mina Girgis: If you have the chance to listen to our first album, it's called Aswan, because the music was made in Aswan, this was our first time going on stage together. We had no idea if the song ... if this is going to be a disaster, if anybody is going to show up or if it's going to be amazing. We didn't know the music was going to be well or not because we didn't even get to rehearse it as much, and what you ... It's still my favorite album, and what you hear in the recording is something that's not ... it's not about how refined the music is, but it's about the relationship, the friendship that's among these musicians. You can almost hear it in the recording.
Mina Girgis: I can tell you all kinds of stories about what I would see in concerts, people crying, people coming and saying, "I've never seen anything like that." It was a really moving experience for a lot of people, especially in Aswan, that's basically the capital of the Nubian population that has been historically compromised, because they had to leave their villages because of the construction of the dam and the reservoir, basically inundating all of their villages. We decided out of all places in the Nile we're going to start there. The next day we had some workshops, and there were kids on the street holding billboards with lyrics from our songs, and it was just like in the streets, it was just a ... it really felt like it was a profound experience for everyone.
Mina Girgis: We started saying we want to make music that's not just, "You write the song, and you get everyone else to play on it," but truly collaborative music. We wanted to create music that bridged these different traditions, and we wanted to explore what that bridging could look like artistically. Over the years the bridging started evolving, the first year we had maybe one or two songs that had different languages, the second year one of the Egyptian artist said, "You know, I listened to that Ethiopian pentatonic mode, and I love it, and I want to write a song in Arabic that has Ethiopian pentatonic mode." We had our first song that sounded like Ethiopian music, but it was in Arabic.
Mina Girgis: The second year two musicians were like, "Oh, we can play a little bit more on this," so one Egyptian musicians and one Ethiopian musicians collaborated, and they put an Egyptian scale and an Ethiopian scale together, and this is ... this is an example of two scales that basically if you're a music person, the notes, most of the notes stack up. In Ethiopia it's all five note scales, and in Egypt it's seven note scales like the Western musical system. Most of the notes stack up so it sounds Egyptian to the Egyptians, and it sound Ethiopian to the Ethiopians. Even if you're not comfortable stretching out, bridging musically it sounds comfortable enough for you, it's not dissonant, it's not faraway, it's not like something that you have to put an effort to listen to.
Mina Girgis: We found that this kinds of approaches helped different audience members at different levels kind of stretch their ears, and kind of start becoming more inclusive of other sounds. This was one of the different ways we kind of explored that musical bridging. There are many other ways, and we kind of shared all of these different ways with the musicians, and shared with them examples from other parts of the world at how this has happened. We would give them ideas of like, "Okay, how about like you bring that instrument and this instrument that have similar roots?" One of the fascinating things we found is that there are instruments that exists all across the Nile, lyres and harps primarily that exists in all of these different countries.
Mina Girgis: When people asks us, "Okay, so the Nile runs across all of these countries, it's the same river, but do you actually have much in common?" These are some of the things that we had in common. In the beginning we were like, "Oh, we're bringing musicians from all of these different countries to play lyres," and soon thereafter we realized we don't actually need all of our musicians to be playing lyres, we could have like two or three musicians that play lyres, and they'll just play all the lyres of all the different countries. They started teaching each other how to play their own instruments, their respective instruments. We started seeing musicians explore sharing instruments, and kind of like playing each other's musical traditions, and by the end the Egyptian musicians in lecture demonstrations would be demonstrating Ethiopian music, and the Ethiopian musicians would be demonstrating Egyptian music.
Mina Girgis: It was really like the bridging, the artistic bridging that happens, to me was a lot deeper than most of what I've seen in the world music industry. Because of the economics of the world music industry usually a fusion project happen on the day before, you get two virtuosos, Zakir Hussain, the best tabla player in the world, and Bela Fleck, virtuoso banjo payer. They meet a day before, and they know musical structures well enough that they know, "You're going to play what you always play, and I'm going to riff over it or I'm going to improvise, take a solo, and that would be it." To me that was kind of like a half-cooked a bit, it's like if you know these people well enough you know that this music is probably not as good as most of the music they make with their respective musicians from their cultures, because they don't know these people well enough. The depth of that collaboration, it didn't take time to evolve
Mina Girgis: We didn't want to make music that was half-cooked, we wanted to show ... even if it was imperfect, because you can't play Egyptian ney as well as an Egyptian ney player if you're not Egyptian, unless you spend like a lifetime kind of practicing, but even if it wasn't perfect it was really expressing something deeper than that. It was expressing the relationships among these people, and them working on a collaborative project for a longer period of time, and exploring that over many years.
Mina Girgis: Sorry, I went way over time, but I just wanted to give you some background. Thank you for listening, and maybe we can open it up if you have any thoughts, questions.
Female: I have a question about how did you find the musicians, and how did your process really change?
Mina Girgis: From the very beginning we wanted to have a collective, we didn't want to have a band that would be the same people, partly because we couldn't really pack the Nile into one group of musicians that would be on tour. For the economics of touring we had about 12 to 15 musicians on stage, and we actually didn't need more than that to have a proper concert. But we're talking about 11 countries, so it was always kind of a challenge to be as inclusive as possible on stage to show the diversity both across cultural ethnic national representations, as well as make sense musically. Because we always need a bass player, you always need percussionist, and you're always going to need vocalist, so we had to kind of figure out what works, and what ... who's capable of what in these different countries.
Mina Girgis: Quickly we realized, for example that for melodic instruments we're going to need Egyptians because of all the Arabic music skills that are really hard to learn if you're from another country, but for some other instruments we could have a little bit more diversity. How could we get all of these, and how can we manage the politics of representation onstage? The first time we picked musicians we relied a lot on friends, and asked people around, and we had some ideas, and then every year what we did was kind of like Yogurt, we would have half of the people that came from the year before, and a new group to join them. The first year we had 18, second year we had 14 people, seven from the first year, and seven new ones, and as we went along we would bring people that came for the first year but didn't come on the second year back in the third year. It kind of kept evolving organically like this based on the needs of that year.
Mina Girgis: I think in total we have about 35 musicians in the collective, people that have participated at any point in time. If you listen to our different albums you'll hear different musicians playing different instruments from different parts of the Nile.
Female: Do you know of any, like smaller projects that [inaudible 01:08:45] elsewhere?
Mina Girgis: In what aspect? In what dimension?
Female: Likely this one started around the Nile, like projects that started around the different geographic region [inaudible 01:08:53]-
Mina Girgis: That river?
Female: Yeah, or just in-
Mina Girgis: There are projects ... I'm helping with, currently with a project called Small Island, Big Song, that is from the Pacific and Indian Oceans, so islands with musicians that are connected with DNA, but have never played together or like have very different traditions. Their whole story is really about sea level rise, about climate change, about their islands, the politics of that, but rivers, there are projects around ... River themed projects, Pete Ziegler did something about clear water in the United States I'm talking, and there was like the Smithsonian produced an album about the Mississippi River, but nothing like this. I would say even when we ... because one of the things that a lot of people suggest is like, "Why don't you do something with other rivers, like the Mekong, the Danube, the Amazon?"
Mina Girgis: The Mekong is a very similar river in terms of water conflict, usually people that study water issues compare a lot of what's happening in Mekong and the Nile, but what was unique in the case of the Nile is a few things. There is a water conflict, and there is a cultural diversity that would yield a musical diversity that would make the project different from anything else. There was a value to bringing these ... there was a cultural isolation that made this valuable, that made the bringing these musicians together something useful, because that's how we triggered the curiosity. We're like in a place where people already kind of know each other, the music would be cool. It might be inspiring environmentally or culturally, but it will not get an Egyptian to change their mind about an Ethiopian because they already know more or less about each other. We've tried to figure out how we can take some of these ideas further, but in a sense the context is a bit different.
Mina Girgis: Yeah, you had a question?
Female: Yeah. I wondered like how you released the album, like you mentioned, I'm just wondering what developments in the world music industry is, because you mentioned that was like, it's a very orientalist album that was meant to give Western audiences world music. How ... What did you do, like how did you release that album? Was it to ... Was it within the Western industry, like in a Western industry or was it within these countries?
Mina Girgis: I'm personally not a big fan of the recording industry as a whole, including Western, non-Western, like I ... For us, the recordings were never a means of making money, it was more of like being able to share that music, that repertoire with people who are not able to come to our concerts. All of our albums are available for free on all the outlets, and that was basically our mission, to make this music available. In terms of ... Something interesting happened when we started. We were starting the project in 2011-2012, and in 2013 the Lincoln Center wanted to commission our album, and they were like, "We're interested in bringing The Nile Project." We hadn't even had our first residency yet, and they were like, "We're interested in bring The Nile Project to the Lincoln Center to perform."
Mina Girgis: We didn't start the project with the intention of performing in the West of it, being a world music product, and to me personally, there's a bit of a clear, like a clear line between, "Are you going to be making music that caters to the aesthetics of the audiences in Africa or are you going to be making a world music product that is catering to the aesthetics of North American, European?" Now, these aesthetics are slowly merging, but in the very beginning, in like the 80's and 90's it was a very different thing.
Mina Girgis: Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo creating an album was, this was like other than like him taking the project of some other South African artist that have been doing this work before, this was like a rock and roll star who is bringing these musicians. If you'll watch the videos you'll see they're all like behind him, like he is the rock star in the front, and it was made based on his own principles, his own priorities. They were a texture in the background of his music, a very important texture that made the album very popular, but it was still that ... You go to Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club and it changes a little bit, but it's still, "Why is Ry Cooder and his son playing with all these incredible Cuban musicians? Do you need Ry Cooder for these people to be able to perform that?" The dynamic, the power dynamics onstage always change.
Mina Girgis: For us it was like we didn't want any of that, and we were very clear about it. We started with ... We were like, we said, "Okay, we'll make the project for Africa." Our first tour was in 2014, was in all the Nile countries, and then if the project has interest elsewhere then great. Something unexpected happened, and this is where we met here, the Cal Performances was very interested in bringing the project here. They wanted us to have a year-long residency, and courses, big ideas courses here on campus, and for us this was really important because we needed an academic home, because I'm an ethnomusicologist, I don't know anything about water, and we need like, actually people who know about this stuff. This is where Elsadiq and I met, part of this residency on campus, and what happened was that whenever we would mention that we have an association with UC Berkeley in the Nile Basin, with universities there, they would want to work with The Nile Project even more.
Mina Girgis: The US affiliations that we had in universities helped the different universities we wanted to collaborate in the Nile come on board, whether it's Cairo University and the University of Addis or any other university in the Nile Basin. We felt like there was something really useful about having these associations with the North American performing art centers and universities in facilitating the work that we're doing there. But we wanted to stay clear on, you know, we're not doing this just to export it, because what happens with most world music fusion projects is they are made for export, like the locals don't see it at all, and that was important for us. Yeah.
Male: You mentioned you got some historical, like colonial and political-social compass in the Nile countries because of the colonial legacy. How do you see that within this project or how did you ... how do you account for that in the project?
Mina Girgis: It was a lot of ... In the workshops we had to do a lot of, how do you call that? Like hear people out, we'd have like a workshop, and this happened in the US as much as it happened in the Nile Basin, but you would have some people, participants in the conversations that were like angry, like literally angry. They are like sitting there, listening, and waiting for any faux pas to kind of like bring out their anger about what they perceive as the injustice for a very good reason.
Mina Girgis: Now a big part was, you know I'm also Egyptian, I could feel because I'm facilitating some of these conversations, facilitated them among musicians, facilitated them among musicians and participants from different places, and you'd see this baggage come out about like, "What's happening right now is not fair, that Egypt gets 80% or 85% of the water, it's not fair," and then the Egyptians would say, "Well, but we don't have any other form of," you'd get all of these. But below the surface there was this like, this racial, like the racial dimension was always kind of underlying. When we started opening that can of worms you'd see that actually there is a lot there that had to be brought out, and opened to the surface so people can hear each other.
Mina Girgis: It was fascinating, in some of these workshops, in Egypt especially, when like, if there are some Sudanese, Ethiopians, so Egypt is a stopping place for a lot of the refugee communities in the Nile. Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia the Oromo community, which until the new prime minister is Oromo, but before that, that was an ethnic group that was always marginalized. Any political activist that are Oromos would end up being in Egypt, waiting to go to whatever country, destination country. The way they are treated by UNHCR is terrible, and the way they are treated by Egyptians is terrible. I mean, really horrible stuff, but ... so everyone has in their memory this is ... We're talking about like now being friends but like look at how we're treated today, how it reminds us of how we were treated 100 years ago or 50 years ago.
Mina Girgis: We decided at some point to, this is kind of attention, but we decided at some point to make a choir, to give that collaboration opportunity, that rich experience that I was talking about for the musicians to make it available for anyone who wanted to participate. We created the Nile Choir in Cairo to be, basically after that replicated in to other countries. We wanted people from all of these different communities to come participate in the choir. Many of them were really excited about singing together, but literally they were afraid of leaving their neighborhood in Cairo today. They were Ethiopians that didn't want to ... We were like, "We'll pay for your transportation," and it wasn't that, and it took me a while to actually understand, like they get harassed, and they get like, in the streets, and it's kind of naïve racism. We don't have in Egypt, the clarity of racism that exists here in the US for people to kind of like agree on it.
Mina Girgis: Whenever the question of racism in Egypt came up, it was amazing how embryonic the conversation was like. Some Egyptians were like, "No, Egyptians are not racist," and then you'd have like some of these refugees will be like, " Are you crazy, out of your mind? You don't know my experience. You've never seen how I get treated in the streets." I think the awareness was not even there. With that for example in Egypt, what was happening in 2011 was that a lot of people were like, "We're sick of being Arab. We're sick of being told we are Arab. We are African, and why have we been politically and historically, and educationally isolated from our African connection in the last 30 years with Mubarak?" A lot of people were like trying to reclaim that African identity by being curious about what it means to be related to these people, as much as you are told you're related to Saudi Arabians, and to Bahrainis.
Mina Girgis: There was this kind of almost African cultural revolution that was happening that we felt in The Nile Project, because all of these people usually showed up to our concerts saying, "You know what, I really want to know about my African dimension." There were both, but it was definitely, like it came up a lot in our conversations. I don't know if that answered your question.
Male: It was, yeah.
Mina Girgis: It was.
Male: Thank you so much for this talk.
Mina Girgis: Yeah, of course.
Male: There's so much of it that I want to ask you more about, but there's something that I was interested in, on the process of, like your process of collaboration, and then when you went into the specifics of producing world fusion music that's more collaborative. I'm wondering, and especially against the kind of conservatory style of music education, and against the kind of the Europe music group structure, I'm wondering were there any groups or any people that already brought in from their own backgrounds, like this type of collaborative process of the fusion music education production? I'm thinking like, at least I can make my own understandings [inaudible 01:22:22], the concentration between the teaching of, like the master and student relationship that you teach.
Male: It's like the structure of the music, but it's really to sort of improvise together, and [inaudible 01:22:41]. I'm wondering if that's against, and specifically about the conservatory style of music, I think this is [inaudible 01:22:44], and so I'm thinking were there any collaborative ways of doing music that were say inherent to or indigenous to the different traditions of different province?
Mina Girgis: Yeah.
Male: Who doesn't necessarily knew all to begin with this U Model structure that these people understood, but that they already, like intuitive, like [inaudible 01:23:07]?
Mina Girgis: Yeah, totally. It's funny, because a lot of people would say, "Oh, what kind of music is it?" It's like fusion music, I can call it that, I don't know what else to call it. They're like, "Oh, I don't like fusion music," and if you're an ethnomusicologist like you're ... People imagine that ethnomusicologist are purist, but actually if you are an ethnomusicologist you actually see all music as fusion music.
Mina Girgis: I can just give you so many examples, it's ... Nothing is really like ... The idea of essentializing something is like from a center and a periphery. Everything is ... like the maqams in Arabic music, they're named after where they come from. We have a maqam that's called kurd, Egyptians, that's what Egyptian people play, kurd is from Kurdistan, hijaz is from Saudi Arabia, like Nahawand, like all of these, these are the scales that are considered to be the purest Arabic form of music. They come from places that maybe Arab, may not be Arab. There was a ... I think like on some level, and that's what was interesting with the musicians, and musicians were more ... even though they are bastions of their traditions, they are like some of the most steep people in their respective traditions, which we were lucky to be able to bring onboard, but they were more curious about learning about somebody else's music than doing their own thing again.
Mina Girgis: I mean they've been doing their thing, they're really good at what they do, but they want to learn. They want to kind of play, I mean playing is like ... When you see someone that has something different than you, you can't help but want to know what it is. Just like kids in a kindergarten, I mean it was that level. That was fascinating to see how ... The first year, we were like, "Oh, we'll start with and environmental educator for the first two days to explain the Nile problem, so that way it informs their collaboration." The musicians showed up, and no one wanted to hear the environmental education, they were like, "Okay, no I really want to play music. We just like, we don't want to talk. We don't want to think about any of this Nile stuff." It took years actually until they were like coming and sitting in workshops, and panels, and then hearing all of these questions they're like, "I don't know anything about this. I'm supposed to represent my country here."
Mina Girgis: Some of them were like, became ambassadors after playing at nightclubs, and they were like, "Now I want to understand why," because it became part of their lives as well, but I would say, yeah, there are so many stories. I mean, one of the last concert ... one of the last cohorts we had, we had a musicians from Kenya who is like in his 60's, who lived in Ethiopia. He is from Lake Victoria, from a community that migrated from South Sudan historically over the last 100 years, from South Sudan to Uganda, to Kenya, and settled in Kenya, in Kisumu. Their style of music is called Benga, it's kind of related to a Congolese rumba. Congolese rumba started in Congo, and then went to Cuba as rumba that we know, Cuban rumba, and then came back to Congo.
Mina Girgis: Benga is similar, and there's a lot of electric guitar in it, so he plays guitar, and he spent 15 years in Ethiopia, teaching Ethiopians Ethiopian music way before The Nile Project. At some point there was the civil war happened in Ethiopia, so he brought some of the Ethiopian musicians, and took them to Bahrain, and he was playing in nightclubs Arabic music with Ethiopians in Bahrain, and then went back to Kenya. When he came to The Nile Project, like he spoke fluent [inaudible 01:26:52], he's lived in an Arab country, and he completely understood what The Nile Project was about. I don't know if you would call him the fusion musician, but he basically has been to all of these places, and there are lots of stories like that. For us, it was kind of like almost how do you get out of the way of these people, and let them bring in like 20 years of experience? What would that sound like? It was amazing what they came up with.
Mina Girgis: Is this ... All right, well, I'm going to be around, so you can ask me any questions later on if you ... Thank you so much for listening.
Male: Thank you.
Mina Girgis: Thank you.