Living 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.