What do you get when you bring together musicians from 11 countries in Africa’s Nile basin? If you ask UCSB alum Mina Girgis, the answer is more multifaceted than you might think. In 2011, Girgis, a native Egyptian, teacher, and ethnomusicologist based in San Francisco, teamed up with Ethiopian-American singer and friend Meklit Hadero to form The Nile Project. Together they’ve united a team of African musicians, all playing traditional instruments from their respective home countries, to create a band that’s part performance project, part education program, and fully invested in getting people mobilized and informed about the Nile region.
This Wednesday, February 11, The Nile Project brings its lively, harmonious blend of African polyrhythms and cultures to UCSB’s Campbell Hall as part of a two-day mini-residency, where they’ll teach classes, team up with UCSB’s famed Middle Eastern Ensemble, and perform for the public. In anticipation of the event, we caught up with Girgis to discuss the group’s mission statement and its big-picture implications.
What was your original vision for The Nile Project? The model that we started with was a combination of a lot of things I had been doing. Before I came to UCSB, I interned at the Smithsonian, and during that year, they had an exhibition on Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. It was a really incredible experience for me to witness this combination of everything I was interested in — combining different musical traditions from different parts of the world into one narrative that crosses geographical spaces, tells a story, and drives people’s musical and cultural curiosity. But I was also interested in transcending the boundary of traditional performance, where people get onstage and play for two hours and then disappear. As an audience member, you’re left with the memory, but you don’t know what to do with the experience. I was interested in integrating the musical experience a little bit more than just a performance.
The performance part was key, though? Yes. That’s what the music does really well. It engages people. It humanizes the ecosystem. It gets people really excited about each other, and about the Nile, but that curiosity and that excitement can only get you so far. You need to give them tools to wrap their heads around the complexity of the situation. You create the interest with the music, then people learn through the activities that we have after the concerts — the workshops and the lectures and the demonstrations and the panels we curate. From there, people can start seeing what their role is in addressing some of these challenges.
The New York Times recently ran a review of the show and brought up this idea that the Internet has created “small-world music” — that nothing is really tied to a specific place anymore. How do you feel technology has shifted our idea of regional music? Oh, wow. I mean, it’s totally transforming, but we haven’t even seen the beginning of it yet. People talk about the cosmopolitan musicians, the global musicians who can converse in so many different traditions, but we haven’t even seen people who have absorbed all of that from a young age and are able to express these traditions so fluently. There’s still a difference between the native and the nonnative. But at some point, the mix is going to be so seamless it won’t even matter. It’s migration, but it’s also the Internet, and the Internet is playing a huge role.
UCSB Arts & Lectures presents The Nile Project in concert at UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, February 11, at 8 p.m. For tickets and info, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu. For more on The Nile Project, visit nileproject.org.