Late in the morning on an almost-spring Friday, Pittsboro's gorgeous, golden brown Manifold Recording studio is buzzing. Two engineers are troubleshooting some patching cables on a massive recording console. Musicians chatter excitedly in multiple languages as they prepare for the day's work. They're members of The Nile Project, a collective made up of a dozen musicians from eight of the eleven countries—Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Burundi—through which the Nile flows.
The group first arrived at Manifold last Thursday, but much of the first day there had been dedicated to setting up gear and microphones. By Friday, the band is ready to lay down pieces of its third album: soaring vocal parts sung in Swahili and Arabic, electric guitar and bass, plus an array of percussive instruments that boom, pop, snap, and rattle in turn.
But how did a group of a dozen musicians from halfway across the globe land in an out-of-the-way, state-of-the-art studio in North Carolina?
The answer lies with NC State LIVE, the university's performing arts arm. In 2015, the organization signed on to bring the group to Raleigh for a week of programming that includes a concert, a documentary screening, multiple discussions, and a culminating festival at N.C. State's Stafford Commons. The music, as it turns out, is a bit of a Trojan horse for a larger effort: to highlight issues of water use and sustainability around the globe, not just in the Nile basin. Countries surrounding the Nile have been embroiled in conflict over allocating the river's waters for decades—there's not enough water to accommodate the rapidly growing populations of the river's surrounding countries, which currently sit at about 450 million people.
- Photo by Ben McKeown
"The solution is to find ways of using this water better," says Mina Girgis, who cofounded The Nile Project in San Francisco in 2011. "Find creative ways, innovating in the way we irrigate, innovating in the way we use food, using virtual water ideas to exchange resources between these different countries. That thinking is not going to come from politicians and hydrologists alone."
That thinking, Girgis says, will come from people who don't necessarily consider themselves water professionals: engineers, farmers, educators, anthropologists, fishers, journalists, and others.
"In order to get these people to start seeing these connections and seeing their relevance to the water problem, they need to first be curious about each other, be curious about the Nile," Girgis says.
- Photo by Ben McKeown
The ultimate goal of The Nile Project, he says, is to encourage citizens in the Nile basin to collaborate creatively with one another, while inspiring American audiences to turn to similar issues that affect them. States like North Carolina might not struggle specifically with water scarcity, but they often have other water issues that could benefit from the same solution-oriented brainstorming approach. Girgis and company hope to use their global appeal to spark local action. As Girgis puts it, the most important part of The Nile Project's concerts is engaging audiences after the show.
"If we don't give them the opportunity to translate that ephemeral artistic inspiration into intellectual, critical thinking around the water issues, they won't connect the dots to change their behavior or to engage in a way that's productive beyond the musical experience," he says.
Girgis's day-to-day role with the group is as a producer, managing the scores of moving parts that power The Nile Project. Many of those parts are the musicians themselves, and because The Nile Project's lineup changes from year to year, Girgis is responsible for recruiting fresh talent. His outreach efforts include his personal research and scouting, plus online calls for auditions and word of mouth.
- Ugandan drummer Michael Bazibu records his part of Tana's "Naloona Sielewi."Living Waters
- Photo by Ben McKeown
"It's not a very simple way to find the musicians. We have to check so many boxes—cultural representation, languages that they're singing in, instruments they play—so that we have all the different ranges that we can make an ensemble that plays coherent music," Girgis says.
"They're all traditionally rooted, but also open and flexible to learn other traditions and incorporate them into their musical repertoire," he adds, noting that the ensemble's nonheirarchical format dictates that everyone has to be a versatile team player. That's clearly the case with the current lineup. At Manifold, they warmly tease one another, much in the same way siblings do, and swap pointers about their instruments. Between takes, Kenyan percussionist Kasiva Mutua gets tips on drumming technique from Adel Mekha, who hails from Egypt and Nubia; later, Mutua eggs on Ugandan percussionist Michael Bazibu as he toys with a guitar.
Though most of their public appearances are in Raleigh, the group's side venture in Pittsboro is to record its third album, titled Tana, after the lake that serves as the source for the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
"We're hoping that this album would give a better sense of the music that we have. Our music evolves every year because we have a collective, and the members change, and the repertoire changes," Girgis says. They connected with Manifold through Andrew Reissiger, The Nile Project's music program director, who worked closely with Carrboro's Jonathan Byrd several years ago.
Ordinarily, a high-tech studio like Manifold would be well out of The Nile Project's recording budget. According to the pricing schedule on the studio's website, the group's four-day run, plus two extra sessions scheduled for March 18 and April 9, would run close to $11,000—a huge chunk of change for any band, and an even bigger hurdle for a nonprofit operation.
But Michael Tiemann, who owns Manifold, helped orchestrate a win-win scenario for the group: to help cover the costs of recording at his studio, Tiemann suggested that N.C. State help solicit a handful of donors to chip in for the band's studio time, with the reward being the privilege of sitting in at Manifold while the group records Tana. That money would help cover the band's costs while satisfying N.C. State affiliates, and Tiemann gets to show off his space, too. It'll likely be a long while before Tana hits store shelves, but with the ensemble's brilliant musicianship and Manifold's technical might, it'll be well worth the wait.
- Photo by Ben McKeown
Back in the mixing room, the musicians reconvene after tracking "Fulani," their first song of the day. Several squeeze together on a long black leather couch and joke around, and as the music they recorded pours back through the studio monitors, they bob their heads along, grinning. Everyone's pleased with the combined efforts. There's still a long road ahead for these musicians—a record to finish, plus the rest of a three-and-a-half-month tour across the United States that stretches for several more weeks. But for now, it doesn't seem as though things can get much better.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Living Waters."