The amazing jazz/classical pianist sang for Haile Selassie but later retreated from the world, living barefoot in a hilltop monastery, perfecting her bluesy, freewheeling sound.
Photo: Emahoy Tsegue Maryam Guebrou Photograph: Gali Tibbon
27 March 2023 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News
Guardian Music | 27 March 2023
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, an Ethiopian nun, composer and pianist, has died at the age of 99.
According to the country’s state-run news outlet Fana Broadcasting Corporate, she died in Jerusalem. Guèbrou had been living at the Ethiopian Monastery there for almost 40 years.
As a child, she spent time as a prisoner of war and went onto study under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz in Cairo.
Guèbrou released her first album in 1967, donating proceeds to those in need, and continued to use money made from her music to help raise aid for Ethiopian children orphaned by war. The Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Foundation was also established to help children in need have the ability to study music.
After her mother’s death in 1984, she moved to the Ethiopian Monastery in Jerusalem.
Her music has been used in the Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary Time and in Rebecca Hall’s Netflix drama Passing. Over her life, she composed more than 150 original works of music for piano, organ, opera, and chamber ensembles.
Journalist and author Kate Molleson made a documentary about her for BBC Radio Four called The Honky Tonk Man. She described her as “a woman whose choices were determined by religious self-exile, maverick gender struggles and Ethiopia’s dramatic 20th-century political history – and who became a singular artist in the process”.
She once said to Molleson: “We can’t always choose what life brings. But we can choose how to respond.”
Exile and maverick … composer and musician Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbrou. Photograph: Gali Tibbon
She sang for Haile Selassie but later retreated from the world, living barefoot in a hilltop monastery, perfecting her bluesy, freewheeling sound. Kate Molleson on The Honky Tonk Nun, her documentary about Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou
17 April 2017 | Kate Molleson | The Guardian
I’m no great singer, but Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou only really trusted me after I had sung to her. “Something from your country,” she instructed. So I found myself in the tiny bedroom of this 93-year-old Ethiopian composer-pianist-nun, croaking my way through the verses of a Robert Burns song.
Given she does not agree to most interviews, I felt I should do what I was told. The room, at the Ethiopian Orthodox church in Jerusalem, was cramped and sweltering. In it was a small bed, an upright piano draped in Ethiopian flags, stacks of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, and a jumble of handwritten manuscripts. On the walls were portraits of Emperor Haile Selassie – Emahoy knew him in the 1930s – and her own paintings of religious icons. The door was propped open and, from the courtyard, came smells of food and the sound of monks chanting.
Emahoy is fluent in seven languages, but when I finished the Burns song (Ae Fond Kiss) she admitted the old Scots lyrics had been tricky to decipher. I gave her a potted translation – lovers meet, lovers part, lovers feel brokenhearted – and she gripped my arm and fixed me with one of her deep stares. “We can’t always choose what life brings,” she said. “But we can choose how to respond.”
If anyone is qualified to dish out such wisdom, it’s a woman whose choices were determined by religious self-exile, maverick gender struggles and Ethiopia’s dramatic 20th-century political history – and who became a singular artist in the process.
Most people familiar with Emahoy’s music come across it via her solo piano album released in 2006, as part of the Éthiopiques collection. That series put her poised, bluesy, freewheeling waltzes together with the Ethio-jazz that emerged out of Addis Ababa in the 1960s – and although she smiles fondly at the mention of fellow Éthiopiques musicians such as Mulatu Astatke and Alemayehu Eshete, she insists she’s not a jazz artist. Her training is purely western classical; her inspiration comes from the ancient modal chants of the Orthodox church. It’s a unique fusion and it sounds like nothing else.
I was in Jerusalem to make a documentary about Emahoy. Born in 1923, she grew up in one of the country’s most privileged families. She and her sister were the first girls to be sent abroad for their education – she remembers travelling by train, aged six, from the highlands of Addis to the port of Djibouti then onwards by boat to Marseille, en route to a Swiss boarding school. That’s where she first encountered western classical music. She took piano and violin lessons and turned out to be a special talent.
In the 1930s, she returned to Addis: portraits from this period show a gorgeous young woman with a wry smile and a bold fashion sense. She went to high-society parties and sang for Haile Selassie.
She had a car and raced a horse and trap around the city. She was a feminist: the first woman to work for the Ethiopian civil service, the first to sing in an Ethiopian Orthodox church, the first to work as a translator for the Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem. “Even as a teenager I was always asking, ‘What is the difference between boys and girls?’” she told me. “We are equal!”
That life was brutally disrupted when Benito Mussolini, with an eye on a potential colony, invaded Ethiopia in 1936 and three members of Emahoy’s family were killed. She was evacuated to Europe, but she was unfazed in her determination to become a musician and eventually found her way to Cairo to study with esteemed Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz. She practiced for nine hours a day and remembers it as a happy time, but the Egyptian heat got to her and she was sent home to recover in the high-altitude, more temperate climate of the Ethiopian capital.
Emahoy told me all this from her bed last summer, intent on communicating the details with precision and clarity. At the end of each day’s interview, she insisted on listening to it to make sure she had articulated her thoughts in just the way she wanted. She was fierce, alert, giggly, excellent company. She quizzed my producer and me about global politics: what did we make of the policies of Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel? (She herself quite likes Merkel; she does not like Trump.)
When we arrived at the next part of her story, something didn’t add up. After her time in Cairo, 23-year-old Emahoy set her sights on London and was offered a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music.
But for reasons that she couldn’t or wouldn’t disclose, she was refused permission to go. Whether it was a bureaucratic glitch or something closer to the lyrics of my Burns song, we will probably never know. The disappointment made her give up the classical piano and turn to God. “It was His willing,” is all she would say when I asked what had prevented her from pursuing her studies. “We can choose how to respond.”
Emahoy never rekindled her nascent career as a classical concert pianist; instead she invented her own musical language. After becoming a nun, she spent a decade living barefoot in a hilltop monastery in northern Ethiopia, and when she eventually returned to music, she wrote her own compositions, infusing the classical training of her youth with the pentatonic chants she was singing in church. There’s a stunning timelessness to her music: the ornaments are virtuosic and the chords lilt like a Chopin waltz – almost, but not quite. With Emahoy, nothing is regular. No fixed metre, no pulse that can be set in notation, no strict adherence to any one scale system. Her melodies flit between traditions; they float on their own axis.
I was lucky enough to be introduced to Emahoy by Maya Dunietz – an Israeli musician who helped Emahoy publish her work for the first time. The resulting volume contains 12 pieces, but there are dozens of other compositions yet to be published and dozens more Emahoy has yet to finish.
As well as my singing ordeal, I was put through a sight-reading test in that tiny bedroom in Jerusalem, having to prove my worth by picking my way through one of Emahoy’s latest compositions. “No pressure,” my producer whispered, helpfully. Before we left, Emahoy fixed me with that stare again. She told me to go through life fighting for equality. She said she’s working on another album. Even from her bed, she’s still choosing how to respond.
Publishing the pentatonic piano music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, the maestro in the monastery whose biography is as extraordinary as her music.
by Lucas Keen January 12, 2021 | PAM
iving quietly in a small cell of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou spends most of her time with God and her piano. A classically trained maestro whose life story arcs and arcs again, her enigmatic music came to worldwide attention thanks to Francis Falceto’s Ethiopiques series.
However, among the big bands of swinging Addis and the Ethio-Jazz of the golden age of Ethiopian music, Emahoy’s compositions defy genre (and some other pedantic rules of music theory) hushing the listener into awed silence and peace with their beauty and virtuosity.
This was the experience Israeli pianist and sound artist Maya Dunietz, a composer of immersive sound experiences for The Venice Biennale and Centre Georges Pompidou, had the first time she heard Emahoy’s lullaby-like compositions fifteen years ago.Dunietz was so overcome by Emahoy’s alchemy of classical airs with Ethiopian modes and pentatonic runs that she resolved to search for the enigmatic nun, a story she narrated for me earlier this month from Tel Aviv.
“I was just caught in the magic of her sound. I’d never heard anything like the perception of time in her music – these classical structures with an African accent was a combination I’d never heard before. It was so truthful, so honest. I read the liner notes of the CD and the last detail it gives is that she lives in a monastery in Jerusalem. And since I live 45 minutes away I decided to go find her.”
The Debre Genet or “Sanctuary of Paradise” monastery on Ethiopia Street had been Emahoy’s home since the eighties. In a life shaped by exile, both political and self imposed, the story of how Emahoy came to be living a monastic life in Jerusalem reads like a novel, and perhaps explains the sweet sadness in her music.
Born into a wealthy Addis family in 1923, at the age of six years old Emahoy was sent to Switzerland to study violin where she first came under the spell of classical piano. Returning to Ethiopia in the 1930s, with the coming of the Second Italo-Ethiopian war, the prodigal pianist became a prisoner of war and was sent along with her family to the prison island of Asinara off the Sardininian coast.
Afterwards she spent time in Egypt where she continued her musical training before returning to Ethiopia in time for the sixties where she was part of a fashionable high society, mingling with and playing for Emperor Haile Selassie who helped release her first record in 1967. This epoch was good for the cosmopolitan Emahoy who was the first woman to work in the Ethiopian Civil Service and spoke 7 languages which made the next chapter of Maya Dunietz’s story all the more beguiling.
“So we went there (The monastery where Emahoy lives) and knocked on the door and in the beginning she claimed to not be able to speak any language! when in fact she knows like 7 or 8 of them (laughs). But the atmosphere got warmer. We explained we were musicians and asked what she was working on and if we could take a look at her notebook and play a few notes. She liked how I played her music from the first moment. She told me ‘I like how you do it – you don’t put too much pedal.’ People put too much pedal she always says and she’s so right! So it was then that she really opened up and started to tell us about her experience as a musician in this monastery context and how they don’t really understand what she’s doing and why it’s important. From there it became a very deep conversation about music.“
So how did the now octogenarian Emahoy make the journey from swinging Addis to a convent? The story goes that Emahoy had been offered a scholarship to The Royal Academy of Music in London but for reasons unknown was prevented from taking up the offer. Inconsolable and bereft she fasted for two weeks, and was even administered her last rites only to revive with the epiphany that she would leave behind music and dedicate her life to God.
For ten years Emahoy lived barefoot in a remote hilltop monastery in Ethiopia before returning to music, but not to the Addis of her youth. Instead Emahoy left for Israel and took up residence in Debre Genet where Maya’s story continues.
“So I left her my number on the notebook and said call anytime. Between one and two years passed, and she called me. She summoned me in fact, she said ‘Maya I need your help. Come!’ It was a very odd call, I thought she was pranking me! So when I got there she handed me three Air Ethiopia bags from the fifties all crumpled and they contained all of her manuscripts, in a big mess! And she said ‘I’m ready. But I don’t know how to start so I want you to do it.’ So I took it home and started to decipher what’s going on and I realised It’s a crazy archeological job. There were dates in both the Ethiopian calendar and Roman calendar and none of the pages were numbered. Many of her manuscripts were also written more like a memo to self. So I had to work out the ideal way to notate it so anyone could sit down and play from the book and it would sound as it should, and what does that mean anyway?” (laughs)
Emahoy’s motivation for publishing her life’s work was to set up a foundation for children in Addis Ababa (which now also supports music education in Washington DC) and the collaboration Maya and Emahoy embarked upon has continued the revival of Emahoy’s discography.
That said, Emahoy’s music remains a rare thing, figuratively and literally as Maya relates; “So we started this process and I realised I needed some help and started looking for some partners. And I found this amazing group of people – The Jerusalem season of culture festival. And they took this project under their umbrella and we began creating this book with 12 pieces for piano. But it went out of print super fast! and now so many people are asking for it again.“
At their first meeting Emahoy also told Maya that it was her dream to have one of her pieces arranged for orchestra, and with the help of the Jerusalem Season of Culture Maya organised a grand setting of Emahoy’s work.
“The way she sees her work is like Beethoven or Chopin” Maya explains. “She had dozens of magnetic tapes with her singing in Amaharic, French, English, Hebrew a little bit of Italian. So I chose a few of those and we found two wonderful singers that live in Israel but originate in Ethiopia, Esta Rada and Hiwot Mekonen as well this sacred choir from Ethiopia and Eritrea who belong to this Church. It was quite an event! She was very happy, because in a way her art had been ignored or put down. The Archbishop for her church came with his fancy golden cape and sat next to her. And there was a line of 400 people coming to shake her hand and thank her.“
Also keen to pay his respects when he performed in Israel was Mulatu Astakte who asked to meet with Emahoy and Maya “He told us he’s been a fan since he was a kid and she’s like a godmother to him!“
So what next for Emahoy’s oeuvre I asked Maya?
“There are many plans. I keep being invited to play her music around the world. I have some rescheduled concerts to do in France (a TBC date at the Fondation Cartier in Paris) and I’ve been offered to record her music. For many years people asked, but I felt I couldn’t . Her recordings were the ultimate and I didn’t have anything to add. But now I have a different view. I feel I’m ready and happy with it. So this will be done and then there’s the whole matter of these magnetic tapes that we digitised and I would love for them to see the light of day.“
The thought of more of this sublime music to come and performances in 2021 left me very happy indeed as did Maya’s reply to my last question before ringing off.
“Yes I went to see her about two or three weeks ago! I’ll be dropping in on her in a week or so as it’s her (97th) birthday, She was born around Christmas.“
Originally published January 12, 2021.
Guèbrou was born as Yewubdar Gebru in Addis Ababa, on 12 December 1923, to a wealthy Amhara family. At the age of six she was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, where she studied violin. In 1933 she returned to Ethiopia, where she was a civil servant and singer to Haile Selassie. During the Second Italo-Ethiopian War she and her family were prisoners of war and were sent by the Italians to the prison camp on the Italian island of Asinara and later to Mercogliano, near Naples. After the war Guèbrou studied under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz in Cairo. Kontorowicz and Guèbrou returned to Ethiopia where Kontorowicz was appointed musical director of the band of the Imperial Body Guard. Guèbrou was employed as an administrative assistant. Her first record was released in 1967.
The Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Foundation has been set up to help children in need both in Africa and in the Washington, D.C. metro area to study music. In April 2017 Guèbrou was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 documentary, introduced by Kate Molleson, entitled The Honky Tonk Nun.
Her music has been described as melodic blues piano with rhythmically complex phrasing. For three decades she lived a reclusive life with only rare performances including one at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C. on 12 July 2008. Three tribute concerts were held in Jerusalem in 2013 to mark her 90th birthday and a compilation of her musical scores was released.
A compilation of Guèbrou’s work was issued on the Éthiopiques record label. The album, entitled Éthiopiques Volume 21: Ethiopia Song, was released in 2006.
In Popular Media
In 2019, an ad campaign entitled ‘Coming Home’ for Amazon’s Echo Auto and Echo Smart Speaker created by advertising agency Wongdoody featured a song by Guebrou titled ‘Homesickness’. Her music was featured in the soundtrack of the 2020 documentary Time. Two of her compositions were also featured in the 2021 Netflix movie Passing: ‘The Homeless Wanderer’ (used in the official trailer) and ‘The Last Tears of a Deceased’.