If the music that can touch you so deeply with so few notes weren’t so magical, there’s also Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Guebru’s fascinating back-story.
By David D’Arcy
There is a delicate simplicity to the music of Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Guebru. Her gentle melodies bridge spaces between classical music and jazz and much more.
Now 90, Emahoy still plays the piano. This week, as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, musicians in that city are playing her music in the program, Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Guebru–Sounds from the Ethiopia Street, conducted by Ilan Volkov. It is a rare occasion to hear Emahoy’s music played by anyone but Emahoy. The performance coincides with another rare occasion, the publication of Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Guebru, a book of her compositions, along with essays in English, Amharic, and Hebrew that piece together a biography.
Emahoy is a Christian nun. She has been since the 1940s. No surprise, her music has been described as spiritual, even cosmic, in the many dutiful interviews that followed upon the American “discovery” of this unique artist when she performed in Washington in 2008. No one predicts a return visit by the 90 year old.
Yet there’s nothing liturgical about the religious woman’s music. The Lonesome Wanderer, a succession of passages that spurt up and down scales, has the ring of Eric Satie, and sometimes that of Keith Jarret’s improvisations from the 1970’s, as does much of her writing and playing for piano. As the lines surge and descend like gentle waves on the keys, you also think of African instruments that repeat phrases as a chorus might—the oud, from nearby Egypt (and from the Arabian peninsula, always a place with affinities to Ethiopian culture), and the kora, the bowl-shaped instrument with harp-like sonorities from West Africa, where the melody and the rhythm (we can call it a groove) tend to be the same thing. Listening to Emahoy play those spare solo melodies as if they were prayers, lonesome is exactly what you feel.
In The Song of the Sea, with arpeggios that shift like Satie’s against chords that mark the beat resolutely, you also hear hints of the jazz of the 1920s. Did 78’s by Bix Biederbecke find their way to Emahoy? Roberta Hunter in a nun’s habit? Not exactly. Think of Bix’s In the Mist. Emahoy might have run across them during her studies in Europe, where musicians welcomed jazz as least as much as Prohibition America did. Wherever those influences came from, they have had a long time to sink in. Her compositions on religious themes—entitled Golgotha and Gethsemane—tend to incorporate more dissonance and less of a jazz rhythm.
If the music that can touch you so deeply with so few notes weren’t so magical, there’s also the back-story. Emahoy was born in 1923 into a prominent Ethiopian family, at a time when Ethiopia had not been victim to the scourge of colonization that reached most of Africa. A prodigy on the piano, she studied in Switzerland, where she was sent to boarding school. Ethiopia’s independence ended in 1936, when Mussolini invaded as part of a gambit to reconstitute the Roman Empire. Emahoy’s family was held on the island of Asinara, north of Sardinia, for a year, and then confined outside Naples. Repatriated to Ethiopia, she worked as a secretary in the country’s Foreign Ministry and studied violin for two years in Cairo. She later petitioned in the late 1940s to study in London and was turned down by the Ethiopian government. Shocked, the young woman responded by retreating into seclusion and entering a convent. She spent years in northern Ethiopia, where she was forbidden to wear shoes. She abandoned music. After a decade of asceticism, she returned to Addis Abeba and to the keyboard.
Her first visit to Israel was after 1967, when the Six Day War gave Ethiopians renewed access to the Old City of Jerusalem—a consequence of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. She stayed for six years. In 1984, when the hardline Marxist regime of Megistu Haile Mariam targeted prominent families associated with the old Haile Selassie regime, Emahoy located permanently to Israel. She lives at the Kidane Meheret Church in Jerusalem. She barely speaks Hebrew.
The easiest way to listen to Emahoy playing is through Ethiopiques, an epic recording project (known to world music fans), initiated by Francis Falceto, that documents music made in Ethiopia from around 1950 on. Ethiopiques, now in 28 cds, is available wherever you can download music and at music stores, but anyone with a computer can find Ethiopiques 21, devoted to Emahoy, on YouTube. (Much of that music is also on the Jerusalem Season of Culture site.)
Once you get on YouTube, other recordings of Ethiopian music (or music by Ethiopians) will appear in the right hand column. The sheer amount of music seems near-infinite. I envy anyone who has the time to try to listen to all of it.
Could you achieve such a rich mega-compilation with music from other African countries? Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, South Africa, and Morocco come to mind. Countries that seem to be unlikely for such an in-depth scrutiny could turn out to be as unlikely as Ethiopia was before Francis Falceto undertook Ethiopiques. (Interviews with Falceto are all over the internet.)
Depending on how you define Ethiopian music—and I would welcome any attempt at a definition—the performance of Emahoy’s compostions could be another chapter in the series. Israelis and Ethiopians (some of them also Israeli) will inevitably find different sounds that take us beyond Emahoy’s own delicate solo touch on the the piano. Another stream into the infinite?
In the meantime, Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Guebru—the book—can be obtained through Jerusalem Season of Culture. A project to publish Emahoy’s music is also underway at Tadias Magazine.
Relatives of Emahoy in the US operate a foundation in her name in Washington D.C.
Emahoy herself took ill the day of her book launch in Jerusalem earlier this month and missed a chance to speak to the public about her music and her life. She may eventually answer some questions by email—which the 90 year old uses.
David D’Arcy, who lives in New York, is a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He reviews films for Screen International. His film blog, Outtakes, is at artinfo.com. He writes about art for many publications, including The Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary, Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.