Breaking News & Top Stories


Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, musician and nun, 1923-2023

In 2017, the BBC broadcast a radio documentary entitled The Honky Tonk Nun. Its topic was a classically skilled piano-playing nonagenarian denizen of the Debre Genet monastery in Jerusalem.

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou had come to international prominence just a little over a decade earlier, when the French musicologist Francis Falceto launched an album of her solo piano music in his critically acclaimed Éthiopiques collection. The album, which contained 16 of Guèbrou’s personal compositions recorded over 4 many years, appeared to induct her into the custom of so-called Ethio-jazz, which Falceto had kind of single-handedly dropped at western consideration. However, in reality, her work is completely sui generis.

Because the American critic Ted Gioia has written, “There isn’t a style for funky Ethiopian nuns.” Her items can evoke, within the house of a few bars, Chopin or Debussy, the Mississippi Delta blues and the music of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Guèbrou, who has died on the age of 99, was born in Addis Ababa in 1923, right into a rich and well-connected household. Her father, Kentiba Guèbrou, was a diplomat and mental.

On the age of six, Guèbrou and her sister have been despatched away to boarding faculty in Switzerland. They have been the primary Ethiopian women ever to be despatched overseas to be educated.

Whereas there she learnt to play the piano and the violin and, as she put it, turned “captivated by music” — particularly western classical music.

The Israeli pianist Maya Dunietz, a good friend and collaborator of Guèbrou’s, has emphasised this side of the Ethiopian’s musical formation: “In her personal eyes the composer sees herself as persevering with the legacy of Beethoven and Schumann and Chopin and Brahms . . . And all the opposite issues that sneak in there, they’re simply there as a result of she tells the story of her life within the music.”

Within the early Thirties, Guèbrou returned to Addis Ababa, the place she started to present recitals and as soon as carried out for the emperor, Haile Selassie, at his palace.

However her burgeoning musical profession was dropped at an abrupt halt by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935. Within the chaos, three members of her household have been killed. After which, in 1937, Guèbrou and the surviving family members have been made prisoners of struggle by the Italians and interned on the island of Asinara, north of Sardinia.

After the defeat of Italy in east Africa in 1941, she was in a position to begin finding out music once more. She moved to Cairo, the place she studied with the Polish violinist Alexander Kantorowicz.

Later, in dialog with the BBC, Guèbrou recalled her Egyptian sojourn with fondness. “It was a really good time,” she stated. “I used to be practising 5 hours piano, 4 hours violin, every single day . . . Beethoven, Chopin. Typically I used to be taking part in Schubert, Mozart. Strauss I favored very a lot.”

Guèbrou returned to Addis Ababa on grounds of in poor health well being after two years and was later supplied a scholarship on the Royal Academy of Music in London. However, for causes that will stay obscure for the remainder of her life, she by no means made it to England.

“I don’t know what occurred,” she stated. “However that broke my music[al] life. I didn’t need to play any extra. I used to be so upset.”

A non secular epiphany adopted. Guèbrou obtained holy communion from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church after a interval of torment throughout which she had refused meals. She then retreated to the Guishen Maryam monastery in a mountainous area a number of hundred miles north of Addis Ababa. She was ordained as a nun aged 21.

Guèbrou spent the following 10 years there, residing, as she put it, like a “hermit”. “They instructed me the place was blessed by the blood of Jesus Christ,” she recalled. “So I didn’t need to stroll with sneakers on. I went 10 years [with] no sneakers.” And save for the liturgical plainsong of the church, music was absent from her life, too.

However she ultimately did return to the piano within the early Nineteen Sixties, immersing herself in indigenous Ethiopian varieties, with their distinctive five-note scales, which would depart their imprint on her personal compositions.

Guèbrou recorded intermittently from the late Nineteen Sixties till 1984, when she left Addis Ababa and moved to Jerusalem. It was there that she later met Dunietz. “I used to be simply caught within the magic of her sound,” the latter remembered.

The 2 girls labored collectively to carry extra of Guèbrou’s music to a wider viewers — regardless that she insisted that she “didn’t need to be well-known actually”.