Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, nun with a musical gift, dies at 99

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Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, nun with a musical gift, dies at 99
An undated photo provided via Buda Musique shows musician Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, an Ethiopian-born pianist. Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, an Ethiopian-born musician who seemed headed for a career as a concert pianist before choosing the monastic life, and whose intricate piano recordings gained a cult following, died at 99. (Via Buda Musique via The New York Times)

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- “Honky tonk” and “nun” are words not often seen in combination, but in 2017, when the BBC broadcast a radio documentary about pianist and composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, “The Honky Tonk Nun” was the title of choice.

It was a testament to the music she made, both before and after she became a nun in the 1940s, music that drew on her classical training but seemed to partake of rhythm and blues, jazz and other influences. The relatively few who discovered it knew they had found their way to something singular.

Musician Norah Jones was one who did, especially after hearing the album “Éthiopiques 21,” a collection of Guèbrou’s piano solos that was part of a record series spotlighting folkloric and pop music from Ethiopia.

“This album is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard: part Duke Ellington, part modal scales, part the blues, part church music,” Jones told The New York Times in 2020. “It resonated in all those ways for me.”

Documentarian Garrett Bradley used Guèbrou’s music in the soundtrack of “Time,” her acclaimed 2020 film about a New Orleans woman’s fight to get her husband out of prison. Alex Westfall, writing in Pitchfork about that movie and its soundtrack, called the music “the sonic equivalent to infinity — untethered by conventional meter or rhythm, as if Guèbrou’s instrument holds more keys than it should.”

Fana Broadcasting, Ethiopia’s state-run news agency, announced on March 27 that Guèbrou had died in Jerusalem. She was 99. The announcement did not specify when she died.

“Hers were some of the most extraordinary 99 years ever lived on this earth,” Kate Molleson, who made “The Honky Tonk Nun” and wrote about Guèbrou in her book “Sound Within Sound: Radical Composers of the 20th Century” (2022), said on Twitter.

Guèbrou (the title emahoy is used for a female monk) was born Yewubdar Guèbru on Dec. 12, 1923, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. (She changed her name when she became a nun.) Her father, Kentiba Gebru Desta, held several titles, including mayor of Gondar, and her mother, Kassaye Yelemtu, was socially prominent as well. At age 6, Guèbrou was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland. There, she said in the BBC documentary, she saw a concert by a blind pianist that made a strong impression.

“It remained in my mind, in my heart,” she said. “After that, I was captivated by music.”

She studied violin and piano and then returned to Ethiopia in 1933 to attend the Empress Menen secondary school. After Italy, under Benito Mussolini, invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and forced its emperor, Haile Selassie, into exile, Guèbrou and her family were deported to the Italian island of Asinara and then were relocated to Mercogliano, east of Naples.

When the Italian occupation ended and Selassie was restored to power in 1941, Guèbrou, still a teenager, accepted an offer to further her music studies in Cairo, though the Cairo climate did not agree with her. She eventually returned to Ethiopia, working for a time as an assistant in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

She had a chance to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and seemed on the way to a career as a concert pianist, the BBC documentary says, but that prospect fell through for reasons Guèbrou would not detail. That led her to a spiritual reassessment of her life, and by her early 20s, she was a nun. She spent 10 years in a hilltop monastery in Ethiopia.

“I took off my shoes and went barefoot for 10 years,” she told Molleson. “No shoes, no music, just prayer.”

She returned to her family and by the 1960s was recording some of her music; her first album was released in Germany in 1967, according to the website of a foundation established in her name to promote music education.

She made several other records over the next 30 years, donating the proceeds to the poor. In the mid-1980s, she left Ethiopia and settled into an Ethiopian Orthodox monastery in Jerusalem, spending the rest of her life there. Information on her survivors was not available.

Guèbrou came to much wider attention in 2006. French musicologist and producer Francis Falceto, who had been releasing albums of Ethiopian music from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s in a series called “Éthiopiques” on the Buda Musique label, made a collection of her solo pieces No. 21 in that series.

“While the sound of this musician’s pensive, repetitive drawing-room études owes something to Beethoven, Schumann and Debussy — although they are studded with little arpeggios special to Ethiopian music — there is a dusky, early-blues quality to much of it,” Ben Ratliff wrote in a review in the Times. “If you’ve heard some jazz, you could think it was written by Mary Lou Williams or Duke Ellington in their own moments of making their own quiet, original drawing-room music.”

Ilana Webster-Kogen, an ethnomusicologist at SOAS University of London with an expertise in Ethiopian music, broke down one track from the “Éthiopiques” album, the inviting yet complex “The Story of the Wind,” which is less than three minutes long.

“First, there is a lot of classical technique in there, particularly in the interplay between the right and left hands,” she said by email. “You might think you’re listening to a sonata for those first few seconds because there is so much harmony between the right and left hand. But then it becomes immediately clear that she’s improvising, so the genre signals jazz.”

And then there’s the meter of the piece.

“Most Ethiopian music is written in 6/8, which you can count either as duple meter or triple meter (1-2-1-2 or 1-2-3-1-2-3),” Webster-Kogen wrote. “If you try to count, you’ll see that she really fluctuates between duple and triple pulse. This would be innovative coming from any musician, and sure, there are other Ethiopian musicians who do this — now — but the idea that they got it from a woman who has dedicated her life to prayer and charity … anyone can see that this is unusual.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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