MEET EMAHOY TSEGE MARIAM GEBRU

Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru was born Yewubdar Gebru in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on December 12, 1923 to a wealthy family. At the age of six she and her sister, Senedu Gebru were sent to boarding school in Switzerland, where Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru studied violin. Four years later, in 1933, she returned to Ethiopia.

Her musical talent did not escape the attention of her family or of Emperor Haile Selassie. However, in 1936 the country was invaded by Mussolini, and Ethiopia’s leading families either left or were expelled. Three of her brothers were executed. Emahoy and her family became prisoners of war and were sent to a prison camp on the Italian island of Asinara and then later to Mercogliano near Naples. [1]

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After the war, Emahoy studied under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz in Cairo, Egypt. Kontorowicz and his wife took Emahoy back to Ethiopia because her health was so affected by the heat in Cairo. Kontorowicz was appointed the musical director of the band of the Imperial Body Guard under Haile Selassie and later, Emahoy was employed as an administrative assistant.

Upon her return, however, her musical career began to lose momentum. There were no classical musicians in Ethiopia at that time and certainly no female musicians.  

 

As a result, Emahoy felt greatly isolated, but that was soon alleviated by an unexpected and extremely welcome piece of news: she had received a grant to study at a prestigious music academy in London.  

 

The trip depended on receiving permission from the local Ethiopian authorities – but this was unexpectedly denied. The refusal had a dramatic impact on her life; she sank into a deep depression and refused to eat for twelve days, only drinking coffee.

At the age of 19, she fled to the Guishen Mariam monastery in Ethiopia's Wollo Province and at the age of 21, she became a nun. She was given a religious name, Tsege Mariam, and ordained as a nun, with the title of Emahoy, which means 'female monk.'

 

She could not continue with her music at the monastery as it was in the remote rural hinterlands of Ethiopia, without running water or electricity. Also, she no longer had access to a piano. Her living conditions at the Guishen Mariam monastery were so harsh that she fell severely ill and had to return to her parents' home in Addis Ababa.

emahoy

Once settled in Addis Ababa she resumed playing the piano and began to compose pieces for piano, violin and organ.

 

In the 1960s she lived in Gondar Province, where the former capital of the Ethiopian kingdom had been located, and there she studied the religious music of 6th century Saint Yared, who is credited with inventing the sacred music tradition of Ethiopia's Orthodox Church. There she was moved by the plight of other students who were also studying this type of music – she often saw them in the street, begging for food and lodging. “Although I did not have money to give them, I was determined to use my music to help these and other young people get an education.” [1]

Emahoy's first record was released in 1967. The proceeds from this and subsequent releases from the 1970s went to help an orphanage. In 1974, the Ethiopian Revolution began; Emahoy and her family were persecuted, as much for their religion as for their social standing, during which time she was working as an administrator at the Synod. She continued to compose music, mostly for piano, but also for organ.

In 1984, after her mother's death, Emahoy fled the communist Derg regime and went to the Ethiopian Monastery in Jerusalem where she still resides. She is now 97 years old.

 

Sources:

HER POETRY

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Emahoy Poem

              Here’s an undated poem by Emahoy in Amharic

Emahoy Poem

HER OTHER GIFTS

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In addition to being an accomplished pianist, Emahoy is also fluent in seven languages: Amharic, Ge’ez, French, German, Italian, English and Hebrew. That’s not all. She plays the organ and the violin, and it was violin that she first studied during her childhood in Switzerland.

She draws and writes poetry, too. We wanted to give you a glimpse of at least a couple of her sketches here. Stay tuned for more of her images to be published on this site. 

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Photo left, This picture can be found in the 2013 edition of The Jerusalem Season of Culture book, which is dedicated to Emahoy Tsege Mariam.