Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou
The Honky-Tonk Nun of Ethiopia
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou—soon to celebrate her 98th birthday—has operated beyond all labels. Yet every once in a while, an artist emerges who poses a challenge to the system. They don’t fit easily into any bucket. Sometimes they seem to demand a category of their own.
There is no genre for funky Ethiopian nuns. They don’t fit into any
radio format. There’s no club in your town where you can hear them
perform. She is in a class by herself. That sounds like what every
artist wants, but it’s a scary place to make a career in the music
So it's hardly surprising that Guèbrou has had no career, at least no music career in any conventional sense of the term. She does have a vocation, however—that’s the exact word they use in the religious life. She lives in a tiny room at a hilltop monastery, with a piano nearby and religious icons that she painted herself. She rarely gives interviews and few have ever seen her perform her music. Yet she’s known, to a small clique of devoted fans, all over the world.
Most of her reputation rests on a compilation album released by the
Éthiopiques label, run by Paris-based Buda Musique. This imprint
specializes in Ethiopian music of the 1960s and 1970s, especially the
spirited Ethio-Jazz that came out of Addis Ababa during that era. But
Guèbrou’s solo piano music is something quite different—not for dancing
or clubbing or partying.
But what exactly is it? There are snippets that sound like Chopin or Debussy or Bartok, but then there are bits that come straight out of the earliest Mississippi Delta or Texas blues tradition. Maybe it’s folk music—but I’m not sure which folks could claim ownership to this. I’m even more tempted to call this gospel or spiritual music—and it’s clear that Guèbrou sees this work as part of her religious calling. But I wouldn’t be surprised if others classified it as New Age or World Music, although those genre categories didn’t exist back when her main body of work was recorded.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Guèbrou had conventional music training, far more European than Ethiopian in its precepts. Raised by an affluent family in Addis Ababa, she was sent as a young girl to a boarding school in Switzerland, where she studied violin and piano. Later she undertook a more intense education under the guidance of Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz, practicing up to nine hours per day, according to her account. At age 23, Guèbrou won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, but turned it down.
Her simple explanation was: “It was His willing.” When pressed for more details, she added: “We can choose how to respond.”
She must have felt the call of a religious life even in those days. But
Guèbrou had to give up much more than just music to make that move. As a
young woman, she attended fancy parties, drove a car, worked as a
translator (she’s fluent in seven languages), and espoused a worldview
that can only be described as feminist—she was the first woman to sing
in an Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the first to work for the country’s
civil service. She had dealings with all of the nation’s elites, all the
way up to Emperor Haile Selassie, who allegedly helped her make her
The earliest recordings of Guèbrou date back to 1963, but weren’t
released until 1967, when she was approaching her mid-40s. By then she
had already spent many years in the monastery, living barefoot in a
hilltop retreat. Since the 1980s, she has resided at the Debre Genet
monastery in Jerusalem—whose name literally translates as “Sanctuary of
Paradise.” Here her music blends in with the chanting of monks and the
other distinctive sounds of the neighborhood.
Perhaps that explains the most salient quality of her work. If I had to
come up with a single word to describe it, I would call attention to its
serenity. That’s a rarity in every genre, which despite their
differences, almost always convey a sense of striving and forward
motion. How many artists really capture a blissful attitude of peaceful
centering in the act of creative expression? That’s the aspect that
draws me again and again to the music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.
While others seem to be chasing after that elusive something that
musicians always seek, she sounds like she’s already arrived.
Throwback Thursday ...