The Nile may be the world’s longest river, and Berkeley would seem to be well beyond its banks. Except that the Nile Project, a pioneering trans-national organization, has extended the river’s reach well into the East Bay, most conspicuously with the return of the Nile Project’s musical collective to Zellerbach Hall 8 p.m. Saturday.
The touring ensemble features musicians who hail from Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Burundi, and Kenya, a band sifted from a larger collective of 35 musicians. While drawing on traditional songs and playing traditional instruments like the region-wide lute-like tanbour, the Ethiopian krar harp, the Egyptian kawala flute, and the Burundian ikembe thumb piano, the musicians create startling new arrangements via unprecedented cross cultural collaboration. The musicians also employ sundry percussion and stringed instruments, guitars, and voices, a sound captured on the new album Jinja.
The performance is just one ripple in a much larger wave of activity. It’s not just that Ethiopian-born Berkeley based singer/songwriter Meklit co-founded the organization with Egyptian musicologist Mina Girgis. Saturday’s concert is part of a larger Nile Project residency that includes Cal Performances’ partnership with the BUSD, with every sixth-grade class attending a Friday matinee SchoolTime performance.
The Nile Project artists also host a Nile Gathering Reunion on Friday afternoon at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, a free program that includes a musical collaboration, water cooperation lecture demonstration, and a 6:30 p.m. vocal and percussion-based community music session.
“UC Berkeley has become our home campus after our collaboration in 2015,” says Nile Project CEO and producer Mina Girgis, who gives a pre-performance talk before Saturday evening performance that’s free to concert ticketholders. “The way the project started in San Francisco, it’s like bringing back the Nile to the Bay Area. We’re coming back and sharing what we’ve been doing on the road.”
The epiphany that sparked the Nile Project actually took place in Oakland. Girgis and Meklit, a TED Global Fellow, were hanging out after a mind-blowing concert at Sweet’s Ballroom in Oakland that paired the Ethiopian music and dance combo Fendika with the Debo Band, which draws much of its inspiration from Ethio-jazz legend Mulatu Astatke.
Afterwards, she and Girgis were struck by the fact that “we have to be in the diaspora to hear each other’s music,” Meklit says. “In the Bay Area we’re neighbors and friends, but on the continent there’s very little access to each other’s music. He said, what if we bring musicians from the Nile together to make music?”
On hiatus from the Nile Project, Meklit nonetheless has taken insights gleaned from her East African travels with the collective and applied them to her guest artistic director stint with UnderCover Presents production A Tribute to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which happens to run this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (featuring Berkeley artists like Faye Carol, Kimiko Joy and Howard Wiley).
From the beginning Girgis and Meklit had their eye on the big picture, with music serving is a vehicle for creating larger conversations about the Nile Delta, a region beset by resource rivalry and conflict dating back to the colonial era, if not earlier. The project’s mission is to create conditions on the ground fostering collaborations cultivating the sustainability of the shared ecosystem using music as a foundational force. Needless to say, history has not stood still since the launched the project.
“It’s been a tumultuous six years since the uprising in Egypt, which was part of the inspiration for this project,” Girgis says. “Everyone is so daunted by uncertainties, and there’s a protectionist instinct on so many levels. Governments are responding to fundamentalist Islam, and Trump just created this travel ban. It’s a difficult time to be in the business of building bridges and developing platforms that bring people together.”
The 2015 residency was part of the inaugural run of Cal Performances Berkeley RADICAL initiative (a name drawn from Research And Development Initiative In Creativity, Arts, Learning). Since then, the Nile Project has partnered with six universities in Egypt, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, and launched its inaugural class of Nile Fellows. The year-long leadership seeks to leverage the collective’s influence by selecting 24 students from partner universities to establish Nile Project Clubs on their campuses.
Some of the most exciting developments take place as the musicians spent time with each other and exchange ideas. For Sudanese vocalist and percussionist Asia Madani, a resident of Cairo, the Nile Project has opened a door “to discover a lot beyond Sudan and Egyptian music,” she says speaking in Arabic, with Girgis serving as translator. “I started meeting musicians from other countries and discovered that many Sudanese rhythms I play are actually played in other parts of Nile Basin. All these musical ideas are connected. And as we develop friendships it changes the perspective of people from that country.”
The musicians arrived in the US in mid-January, and just made it under the wire. “If we had waited a week we wouldn’t have all made it,” Girgis says. “There’s a sense of urgency, that we might not be able to come back and this residency might not happen again. In a way it makes us feel our work can not be any better timed.”
Recommended gig: Pianist Keith Saunders
Albany pianist Keith Saunders, a veteran New York player who moved to the East Bay about six years ago, kicks off the new Third Sunday jazz concert series presented by St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany.
Since landing in the Bay Area, he’s worked extensively with guitar great Calvin Keys, first at the 57th Street Gallery and for the past few years every Monday at the Birdland Jazzista Social Club (which is closing at the end of February).
For his St. Albans concert, he’s playing an opening trio set with Berkeley bass master Peter Barshay and Oakland drummer Ron Marabuto focusing on the music of Bud Powell.
For the second set, they’ll be joined by Berkeley saxophonist Bob Kenmotsu, “doing songs I really like to play,” Saunders says. “Hank Mobley’s ‘Work Out,’ the ballad ‘Blue Gardenia,’ a calypso by saxophonist Ralph Lalama that Elvin Jones played ‘Antigua,’ mostly hard bop.”