Composing Interdependence—Songs Along the Nile

Bringing people together is not a side benefit of the Nile Project; it is its primary goal. In dramatic contradiction to the dynamics of global environmental politics, common humanity is regarded by the Nile Project as THE mechanism through which true sustainability takes place.

Written By

Priya Parrotta

In recent years, transnational musical collaborations have emerged, in which musicians from different countries have joined forces to promote awareness of shared ecological challenges. This article will discuss one such collaboration, the Nile Project, which has brought together musicians from throughout the Nile Delta. I will use this example to briefly discuss the alternative vision that such music can pose to our current, highly unsustainable forms of globalization.

The borders between our futures have never been so porous. Globalization and climate change have already illustrated—with startling clarity—that our wellness depends not only on ourselves and the people around us, but also on the individual and collective actions of people thousands of miles away.

We live in a time of unprecedented ecological change, in which the habits that human beings have developed over the course of the past five hundred years or so, with the advent of industrialization and “modernity,” are manifesting in unpredictable and devastating ways. The present and potential impacts of climate change are greater than any of us can easily take in. Changes in temperature, sea level rise, and disruptions to precious webs of interdependency between the world’s living beings: all of these have implications for our homes and loved ones that we cannot bring ourselves to engage with. We must—and yet we can’t. Some might say that this conundrum lies at the heart of our global inaction on climate change.

Taking action on climate change—especially when we live in places where the powers-that-be have little concern for the issue—can be painful and overwhelming. And in spite of the fact that we have more avenues for communication—and across longer distances—than ever before, we still suffer from a crisis of communication. Do the latest online platforms, like Facebook and WhatsApp, make mindful and empathetic conversation easier? Some would say yes, but I am inclined to say no. Amidst all of the changes that globalization has brought into our lives, it seems that we have not yet figured out how to bring such essentials as dialogue, music, and ecological consciousness into our rapidly expanding array of communications options.

Increased “connectivity” with other human beings seems to be propelled by changes in technology rather than genuine engagement.

Increased “connectivity” with other human beings seems to be propelled by changes in technology rather than genuine engagement. Often, our common ground is based upon the expanding reach of narrow expressions of popular culture, exported from the world’s most powerful centers for commercial media (such as Los Angeles and Mumbai). Wealth is distributed more quickly (though not more equitably) than before, through inscrutable networks of finance based in places such as Singapore and New York. And (some) human bodies are more mobile than ever, traveling on airplanes that emit colossal amounts of carbon. The wealthiest of these people travel from London to Paris to Rome, and vacation in tropical islands whose rainforests and shorelines are threatened by our shared, global disregard for the ramifications of the lifestyles that we endorse. Biodiversity, in all its myriad definitions, is put at risk by the narrative of globalization that we tell ourselves and enact: that we live in a world in which diversity, communication, and an enjoyment of the world’s beauties are more available than ever before. Yet more often than not, this globalization does not translate into new forms of transnational collaboration for environmental awareness.

The above is quite a dismal view of globalization, connection, and culture in our times. However, for the past few years, a group of musicians and educators along the Nile River are offering a new example. The Nile Project is an ambitious project in the best sense of the word. Its stated mission is to “inspire, inform, and connect Nile citizens to help them collaborate on cultivating the sustainability of their river.” The Nile is the second longest river in the world, and it quite literally gives life to eleven African countries. The Nile Project engages with people in every one of these countries—from Egypt to Tanzania to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bringing people together is not a “side benefit” of the Nile Project. On the contrary, it is its primary goal. Exposure, curiosity, learning, understanding, empathy, trust, and engagement (in that order) are the pillars of the Nile Project. In dramatic contradiction to the dynamics of global environmental politics discussed so far in this series, common humanity is regarded by the Nile Project as the mechanism through which true sustainability takes place.

Common humanity is regarded by the Nile Project as the mechanism through which true sustainability takes place.

As is the case with the connections between music and climate change in general, the precise links between common humanity and sustainability tend not to be explored in the scholarship, media, and everyday attitudes that those of us in the industrialized (or industrializing) world commonly encounter. The brevity of this post does not permit me to elaborate the ways in which our humanity and our ecological futures depend upon each other.

Simply put, however, the qualities that true sustainability requires are the same qualities that form the bedrock of a truly humane society. Sensitivity to the beauty and the needs of others; an ability to engage honestly with friends and strangers, in the interest of a common good; a willingness to learn and test one’s preconceived notions about other people and places; a desire to imagine a future which celebrates and protects the well-being of all life: These qualities are the cornerstones of healthy humans, and a healthy Earth. In the Nile Delta, conflicts over water already take place. Thus, the men and women involved in the Nile Project emphasize the importance of collaboration and mutual understanding for both spiritual and deeply practical reasons: If we are not able to resolve our water conflicts now, they say, how on Earth will we get on when population grows and droughts become more common?

Music offers its answers

Musicians and educators are particularly well suited to carrying out the Nile Project’s mission. It’s no surprise, then, that musicians lead a significant portion of the Project’s initiatives, and also garner a great deal of appreciation and publicity for their efforts. The musical branch (tributary?) of the Nile Project consists of “an expanding collective of artists from the eleven Nile countries, redefining principles of cross-cultural musical collaboration.” It also includes a “series of community choirs applying the same principles across the Nile Basin.”

In the past five years, Nile Project musicians have recorded two albums (one studio and one live), both of which are rich and inspiring expressions of unity in diversity. The artists hail from Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt (to name a few). Their first album, Aswan, was recorded after ten intensive days of creative collaboration, in which the musicians taught each other their respective musical languages, and then wove together a unified tapestry. They performed this co-created composition in two Egyptian cities—Cairo and Aswan—only four days later. Their second album, Jinja, brought in new musicians from countries such as Burundi, Kenya, and Rwanda. The mood of the album is as varied and wide-reaching as the instruments and styles that created it. For instance, the bluesy opening track, “Inganji” strikes me as a blend of the singer Fatoumata Diawara and the Tuareg ensemble Tinariwen, both from the West (not East) African country of Mali. The track “Tenseo,” meanwhile, sounds closer to the Nile’s Project’s geographic center: a haunting dialogue between the vocal style of Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum, and spare Ethiopian jazz.

Throughout the album, a variety of instruments from across the region—the enanga, a zither native to Uganda and Rwanda; the ikembe, a thumb piano; Ethiopian vocals and Egyptian drums; the adungu, a harp from Uganda—convey the profound human collaborations that were involved in producing the album in the first place.

The Nile Project musicians are currently on tour in the United States. Their itinerary is intense—averaging at one, sometimes two concerts per day. The Nile Project also continues to support ongoing programming closer to home. For instance, they have created a Choir which uses storytelling and song to illustrate some of the region’s most enduring ecological challenges. The Project also offers a Fellowship Program for young people in Nile Basin countries who wish to create “Nile Project Clubs” on their university campuses. In this sense, the Nile Project is both deepening and broadening its scope. And as always, the interconnectivity of the Project’s musicians serves as a powerful sonic metaphor for the sorts of social and cultural collaborations which are necessary for border-crossing, positive change.

Many of us take for granted what we hear about globalization. We assume that the only form which contact across borders can take is economic, commercial, and—in some cases—neo-colonial. Expanded markets, cultural homogenization, and environmental disregard are, unfortunately, some of the hallmarks of the kind of globalization that is popular among the world’s wealthiest. However, other initiatives are taking place which affirm connections across borders in a much more vibrant and sustainable way. As the Nile Project has demonstrated, a dialogue between music and the Earth provides a solid foundation for these alternatives. We would do well to support intersections between music and the environment where they exist, and advocate on their behalf where they are absent.

The international policy landscape that I discussed in my previous post doesn’t allow much space for the sensibilities, or participation, of ecologically minded musicians. By consequence, the avenues for initiatives like the Nile Project to directly inform climate-related political decisions are far and few between. Yet the spirit of this post, as well as the others in this series, is not necessarily to highlight the ways in which music already inspires climate debates, but rather to introduce the possibility that they could do so more deeply. In order for transnational collaborations such as the Nile Project to inspire policy-making, the cooperation of a whole host of professionals—from diplomats to educators to lawyers to the public—is required. A paradigm shift, if you will, is necessary. Globalization and ecology, as expressed through music, must be “written” into the ways in which we talk, write, fear, hope, and converse about the climate landscapes of our day.