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A Biography of Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru by Thomas Feng

Updated: Jan 29

Context: In December 2023, a symposium titled, Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru at 100, was held at Cornell University as part of Thomas Feng's dissertation on Emahoy. This marks the first academic conference entirely dedicated to Emahoy's life and work. The following is a biography of Emahoy, written by Thomas Feng, that was included in the pamphlet for the festival.


Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru CDs for Cornell event
Three of Emahoy's albums, two of which were self-published


A note on Emahoy’s name

“Emahoy” is a title, given to female monastics in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, analogous to “Sister” (1) or “Mother” (2) in other Christian traditions. “Tsege-Mariam” is a chosen name: “Tsege” meaning “flower”, and “Mariam” (a common name) meaning “Mary”: this name has been translated as “Rosemary.” (3) The surname “Gebru” is patronymic: “Gebru” is the name of Emahoy’s father, (Kentiba) Gebru Desta.


According to Ethiopian convention, individuals are not usually referred to by their surnames; in writing I refer to Emahoy as “Emahoy” or, more formally, “Emahoy Tsege-Mariam”, but not “Emahoy Gebru” or “Gebru”.


As there is no standard romanization of Amharic, Emahoy’s name has been spelled in Latin characters various ways, even by herself, over many years. Common variants include “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou”, “Gebrou,” “Gabrou”, and “Gabru”.


A note on citations in the following biography

Many short biographies of Emahoy, like the following, circulate publicly, but contradict each other with regards to dates and other details; often, a lack of citations complicates the process of verification. The present biography is drawn as much as possible from primary sources, including Emahoy’s own writings (published and unpublished), manuscripts and musical recordings, and recorded communications. Secondhand sources, based on either firsthand communication with Emahoy or her family, have been cross-referenced as thoroughly as possible. A list of these biographical sources is included at the end.


In-text citations (and a corresponding list of works cited) are provided for direct quotes, and for other publications that offer historical context.


Prelude

In the years that followed, music helped me in my quest to understand the world and to tame my inner restlessness.

– Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, sleeve notes for Spielt Eigene Kompositionen, translated from German by Sarah Helena Keller


“Ethiopia’s ‘piano queen’” (4) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru (1923-2023), was an Ethiopian composer, pianist, nun of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, whose music and life have, in recent years, captivated listeners around the world. The self-described “melancholic Ethiopian musicality” (5) of her compositions has evoked comparisons to names and genres as far-flung as Erik Satie, (6) Brian Eno, (7) Count Basie, (8) Frédéric Chopin (“in scala abissina”), (9) Western classical “drawing- room music,” (10) the Delta blues (11) – and even “a pirated recording of a Cuban pianist, gently animating the nights of a grand hotel in Havana.” (12) “[Your] music is a bridge,” a producer once told her, (13) attesting to how powerfully Emahoy’s music resonates across cultural and generic boundaries, meeting listeners where they are.

Her music has also crossed media boundaries as well, featured prominently in recent films (Passing (2021) and Time (2020)) and advertisements (Walmart, 2022; Amazon Echo, 2019; Apple iWatch, 2016), alongside a robust streaming listenership and a growing number of concert performances by adventurous pianists.


Worldly life

Prior to adopting her monastic name and title, Emahoy was born Yewubdar Gebru, on December 12, 1923, in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, to a distinguished family. Her father, Kentiba (14) Gebru Desta, is himself a historical figure of national prominence – a Western-educated intellectual and political reformer, with a long and varied career as missionary, theologian, translator, diplomat, governor, mayor, and advisor to several Ethiopian emperors. (15) Gebru’s dedication to civil service would appear to have been passed down to his children: Emahoy’s eldest sister Senedu would go on work for the Red Cross and the Ethiopian parliament (eventually as its vice president) (16); another sister, Desta, would go on to found an orphanage. (17) Several of Emahoy’s brothers (including Col. Dawit, Lt. Meshesha, and Lt. Wagaye) would serve in the military.

From a young age, Emahoy’s life was marked by restless travel and circulation, within Ethiopia and abroad. Following an arson attempt on her family home, the five-year old Yewubdar and her sister Senedu were sent to Switzerland for boarding school – a rare privilege for the time. There, after attending a concert, Yewubdar was enchanted by music, and asked for a violin from Father Christmas. She began violin lessons, and played by herself on a piano near her room.

Returning to Addis Ababa at age 11, Yewubdar was enrolled at a girls’ school. After years of learning French and German, she had forgotten her Amharic, and had to learn it again to speak to her sisters and Ethiopian classmates. “Initially,” she recalled, “solitude was my best friend at the school; later my time was filled by piano, my greatest friend.” (18)

In 1936, Italy invaded Ethiopia, affecting Yewubdar’s family gravely. The Fascist forces would kill three of young Yewubdar’s brothers; her father and her sister Senedu joined the resistance movement, before being interned along with the rest of their family. After being held in various sites across Ethiopia, the family was transferred to the island of Asinara, where other aristocratic Ethiopians were also being held. Later, they were taken to the town of Mercogliano, on the Italian mainland, where they lived with monks and nuns at an abbey. Yewubdar sang hymns with the nuns, and played the organ.

Toward the end of the Italian occupation, Yewubdar and her family were eventually granted permission to return to Ethiopia. Upon her return, the teenage Yewubdar asked her father to petition the Emperor for a government job, typical at the time of foreign-educated students. (19) She chose to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, hoping to be sent abroad again one day, and to study music, (20) as no such institution (aside from the Church or military bands) of formal musical training yet existed in Ethiopia, and certainly not for the Western classical music with which she had become acquainted. (21)

Eventually, her wish was granted: in 1943, Yewubdar secured permission to travel in Cairo, then a cosmopolitan city under wartime British influence. There, she would live and study with the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz, a former classmate of Jascha Heifetz, and court violinist to the Egyptian King Farouk. (22) This would be the most rigorous formal musical training of her life: daily, Yewubdar practiced piano for five hours (with “a Polish master” whose name she would later forget), and violin for four. In her free hours, she would go on the town with Kontorowicz’s wife, who she remembered as a kind and responsible chaperone.

Ultimately, however, forces conspired against Yewubdar to return to Ethiopia after two years: the heat was inhospitable to her health, and both a doctor and the Kontorowicz couple recommended that she return home, although she could have departed for another destination in Europe to pass the summer. Yewubdar and Mrs. Kontorowicz returned to Addis together, Mr. Kontorowicz traveling separately later; only years later would Yewubdar learn that Mr. Kontorowicz had been appointed court violinist by Emperor Haile Selassie I, and was teaching again in Addis Ababa – an arrangement to which she had never been made privy.

Upon her return, Yewubdar hoped to resume her musical studies abroad, this time to London, where she had been offered a scholarship by the Royal Academy of Music. The government denied her permission to leave, (23) and Yewubdar fell into a deep depression. While her family was out for a holiday, Yewubdar refused to eat for twelve days, drinking only black tea. She was hospitalized upon her family’s return, so close to death she even asked to receive Holy Communion, before falling into a deep sleep, waking twelve hours later with a newfound sense of peace. Thereafter, Yewubdar returned to work as a secretary for the Imperial Bodyguard, and drew closer to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, attending the liturgy each afternoon, and prayers deep into the night. She was especially drawn to the liturgical chant of the priests and deacons, and turned away from the piano. (Curiously, manuscripts for her earliest extant compositions date to this period: “Song of the Sea” from 1946, and “Story of the Wind”, from 1947.)

Yewubdar’s growing religious fervor brought her and her mother to a remote monastery at the holy mountain of Amba Gishen, on a holiday; to her mother’s disapproval, Yewubdar expressed her wish to remain there. The priest urged her to return home and to come back in a year, if she still truly wished to return. Undeterred, Yewubdar absconded to Gishen again, indeed a year later, on another holiday, and fulfilled her desire to become a nun. She gave up her hair, her shoes, and her name, becoming Emahoy Tsege-Mariam, in 1948, at the age of 24.


Emahoy-Tsege Mariam Gebru Posters
Posters from the symposium at Cornell

Years of pilgrimage

Emahoy would be based at Gishen for approximately a decade, traveling periodically back to Addis Ababa to visit her family, receive medical treatment for her battered feet, and to be with her father in his final days in 1950. Though a small handful of compositions date to this period (including “Ballad of the Spirits”, written for a school play by her sister Senedu), they are assumed not to have been written at the monastery, where there was no music aside from the liturgy.

It was also during these years that Emahoy took her first pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a city with an Ethiopian presence dating to antiquity, (24) and of whose “Ethiopians’ deep love” Emahoy herself affirmed as “justified as being the cradle of their [Christian] Faith.” (25) Emahoy’s mother, Kassaye Yelemtu, joined for the trip, and was ordained as a nun herself; they returned together after two months, and would make the journey again in years to come.

Following the death of the Abuna (bishop) Mikael, Emahoy left Gishen permanently. She returned to her mother’s home in Addis Ababa, taught at an orphanage, and began composing again more regularly. Thereafter, she relocated to the historic city of Gondar, where she immersed herself in the music of the Ethiopian Orthodox liturgy, especially the celebratory ceremonies called mahlet, attending nightly services lasting at times from midnight until four in the afternoon. She made attempts to learn liturgical music herself – a domain traditionally exclusive to young male students as part of their years- long clerical training – and bring the sacred melodies she heard to the piano.

It was also in Gondar that Emahoy encountered young mendicant liturgical students known as yekolo temari, who she resolved to help by raising funds with her music. And so, in 1963, Emahoy traveled to Germany to record her first two albums, Spielt Eigene Kompositionen, funded by Emperor Haile Selassie, and Der Sang des Meeres, funded by her brother-in-law, General Kebbede Gebre. These two albums contain some of Emahoy’s most well-known pieces, including “The Homeless Wanderer,” “Mother’s Love”, and “Homesickness”. Emahoy would continue to dedicate her music-making toward charitable causes for the rest of her life.

In 1967, Emahoy took another pilgrimage to Jerusalem, this time staying for five years, working as an interpreter for the patriarchate of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In the Holy Land, Emahoy embarked upon arguably the most ambitious period of her compositional output. Her pieces grew substantially in length, forayed into increasingly chromatic harmonies, and explored new textural and structural possibilities. Her titles also evince a shift in inspiration: many pieces are named after holy sites in Jerusalem (“The Garden of Gethsemanie”, “Golgotha”, “Via Crucis”), and her earliest explicitly religious titles begin to appear (“Ave Maria”, “Kyrie Eleison”, “Quo Vadis, Domine?”). This prolific period would culminate in two new albums, before Emahoy’s return to Addis Ababa in 1972 to tend to her mother’s health: The Hymn of Jerusalem – The Jordan River Song, dedicated to the benefit of an orphanage founded by her sister Desta; and Church of Kidane Mehret – Yet my king is from old, dedicated to the benefit of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.


“Troubled Country”

Emahoy’s musical momentum continued unabated upon her return to Ethiopia. Through 1973, she turned increasingly toward Western classical models, with a new proliferation of such generic titles as “Nocturne”, “Sonata”, “Fantaisie”, and most notably, seven expansive “Symphonies”, each with clearly labeled expositions, developments, recapitulations, and subsidiary structural landmarks. She also began to compose more hymns and songs, first setting biblical texts (including numerous Psalms and even an opera based on the book of Job), as well as personal dedications to family members. When famine struck Wollo province toward the end of that year, she performed a concert for the benefit of the victims, and traveled herself to Wollo with her sister Desta and a group of Red Cross volunteers.

Revolution swept Ethiopia in 1974, in the wake of widespread societal discontent with Ethiopia’s imperial government, particularly with regards to its handling of the famine. A popular (primarily urban) uprising among university students and workers emboldened a “creeping coup” led by military junta called the Derg, who gradually arrested imperial officials and eventually deposed (and, as widely believed, assassinated) the Emperor himself in September. Despite appropriating the prevailing leftist ideology in a bid for popular support, the Derg would ultimately prove a repressive regime, executing 60 officials of the ancien régime in November, consolidating power in the hands of the autocratic general Mengistu Haile-Mariam, and violently suppressing perceived competition and threats under what became known as the Red Terror. (26) Emahoy and her family did not escape such persecution. The tight restriction of emigration, (27) as well as her mother’s advanced age, kept Emahoy from leaving the country.

The Derg also critically weakened the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, nationalizing its land and resources and prohibiting, under unpredictably shifting curfews, nightly liturgy services. Against this backdrop of upheaval, Emahoy continued to compose, often deep into the night, when she “didn’t get to church.” (28) Several of her titles through this period often reflect the turmoil around her (“Troubled Country”, “Revolution Prelude 1974 Ethiopia”, “Fatal Night of 24th November 1974”). She would also compose songs more prolifically than ever before, including numerous devotional settings of scripture, original spirituals, more dedications to family members, and patriotic odes to Ethiopia. Despite being composed at home in Addis Ababa, some of these songs (including “Clouds moving on the sky”, “Is it sunny or cloudy in the land you live?” and “Ethiopia my motherland”) express a longing for a distant home, somewhere else. Though she recorded many of these songs privately on cassette, and some older piano solos in a local studio, none of these recordings would be publicly released until years later. A 1979 concert performance at the National Theatre in Addis Ababa, presumably under Derg auspices or directive, appears a rare exception to these years of seclusion.

Emahoy would finally join the emergent Ethiopian diaspora following her mother’s passing. In 1984, through her administrative work at the synod, she was able to secure permission to leave once again for her beloved Jerusalem, settling for the rest of her life at the Debre Genet Monastery, attached to the Church of Kidane Mehret, in West Jerusalem.


Final years and international reach

Little has been written about the following two decades of Emahoy’s life. As Emahoy had no regular access to a piano upon her arrival – strictly speaking, the instrument is not germane to the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition (29) – she composed only sparsely until the new millennium. She continued to work for the Ethiopian Orthodox patriarchate in the Old City, receiving an award for her contributions to tourism, and authoring a small pamphlet on the history of Ethiopia’s deep relationship with the Holy Land. (30) In 1996, she used savings from her modest stipend to publish her first CD, Plays Own Earlier Compositions, toward the benefit of an Ethiopian church on the Jordan River that had been damaged in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War; its tracklist includes studio recordings from her last years in Addis Ababa, along with the reissue of all of the pieces from her first album, Spielt Eigene Kompositionen.

Two years later, Emahoy appealed to her niece, Hanna Kebbede, for help distributing her music. (31) The eventual result would bring Emahoy to international attention: the French label Buda Musique, led by musicologist and impresario Francis Falceto, agreed to release in 2006 a compilation of Emahoy’s piano recordings as the 21st volume of their celebrated series, Éthiopiques. (Proceeds from royalties, as with the previous album, were donated to the restoration of the damaged church.) Western press was immediately enchanted, (32) and a new stream of admirers, interviewers, and collaborators trickled into Emahoy’s life.

Thus began Emahoy’s musical “Indian summer”. A family friend helped Emahoy purchase an upright piano for her room, on which she composed again in earnest. In 2008, she traveled to Washington, DC to perform a benefit concert for a nonprofit foundation that had been established in her name, to which Emahoy would dedicate all of her published and non-published compositions; the Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Foundation, founded and led by family members Hanna Kebbede and Daniel Assefa, continues today direct proceeds from licensing and publications of Emahoy’s music toward music education for underserved children. In 2012, Emahoy dedicated an album of mostly reissues, The Visionary, to the benefit of the Foundation.

In Jerusalem, celebratory concerts organized by experimental composer and pianist Maya Dunietz, in commemoration of her 90th birthday in 2013 – along with the publication of a festschrift (33) and an edited volume of sheet music (34) – would usher in yet another wave of international press attention, garnering profiles in Haaretz, (35) Libération, (36) and L’Osservatore Romano. (37) Kate Molleson, writing first for the Scotland Herald, (38) would go on to feature Emahoy in an article for the Guardian, (39) a BBC radio documentary, (40) and a chapter of a monograph. (41)

Emahoy’s music continues to reach Western listeners across a vast cultural and generic terrain, eliciting tributes from musicians Norah Jones (42) and Dev Hynes, (43) esteemed jazz writers Ted Gioia (44) and Ethan Iverson, (45) and alternative music publications Pitchfork (46) and In Sheep’s Clothing Hi-Fi. (47) (Amanda Petrusich’s profile in the New Yorker appeared in that magazine’s Pop Music column.) (48) Most recently, a Foundation-directed celebration of Emahoy at the Kennedy Center featured Ethiopian-American singer-songwriter Meklit Hadero, “gospejazzical” pianist John McGee, and I, the present author, an academic “new music” pianist. With the Emahoy Tsege Mariam Foundation’s 2018 publication of sheet music for sixteen of Emahoy’s piano pieces, (49) edited by pianist and composer Mary Sutton, her music has also begun to appear on classical recital programs and recordings, (50) alongside licensed use in films and advertisements.


Coda

Emahoy passed away on March 26, 2023, aged 99, in Jerusalem. I, already months into my dissertation research on Emahoy’s life and music, had finally secured travel funding to meet her and play for her. Sadly, this was never to happen, but I was deeply honored instead to be invited by Hanna Kebbede to attend Emahoy’s funeral, and play on her piano at her memorial. Joined by Cyrus Moussavi, filmmaker and owner of Mississippi Records (an archival label collaborating with the Foundation to reissue more of Emahoy’s recordings), we visited Emahoy’s room with her family, and found her old reel-to-reel tape machine, boxes of cassettes, notebooks, and manuscripts – some pages and pieces of which I had previously assumed were missing. As Hanna, Cyrus, and I sat in the courtyard of the Church of Kidane Mehret, translating and cataloging Emahoy’s Amharic cassette labels, I felt the gravity of just how much of Emahoy’s story is yet to be told. For all that she “asked God that [her] name be written on Heaven, not on Earth”, (51) she has left behind in her music a passionate, painstaking account of an extraordinary life in this world.

Now, at the end of what would have been her hundredth year, her music seems just to be in the air, percolating through café speakers, holiday commercials, gallery spaces, and concert halls. Like Emahoy herself, her music is well-traveled; it has not only stories to tell, but also new stories to weave, as it flows through new listeners, new perspectives, and new representations.


You know the wind goes around the World and has so many stories to tell... On your leisure hours sit in your garden and listen [to] his story as he is passing by... you will enjoy it...

– Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, on “Story of the Wind”; liner notes for Ethiopiques, Vol. 21 (ellipses original)


(1) Neil Genzlinger, “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Nun With a Musical Gift, Dies at 99,” The New York Times, April 3, 2023, sec. Arts, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/03/arts/music/emahoy-tsegue-maryam-guebrou-dead.html; Brian Murphy, “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Ethiopian Nun and Piano Virtuoso, Dies at 99,” Washington Post, April 5, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2023/04/01/emahoy-guebrou-nun-ethiopian-piano-dies/.

(2) Joachim Persoon, “The Ethiopian Monk: A Changing Concept of Masculinity,” Institute of Ethiopian Studies 35, no. 1 (June 2002): 43–65, https://doi.org/10.1080/14742250701550233; Kirsten Stoffregen Pedersen, The History of the Ethiopian Community in the Holy Land from the Time of Emperor Tewodros II till 1974, ed. Geries Sa’ed Khoury (Jerusalem: Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research, Tantur, 1983), p. 129.

(3) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, Introduction to Selected Piano Compositions, ed. Mary Sutton (Alexandria, VA: Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Music Foundation, Inc., 2018), p. ix.

(4) Kalkidan Yibeltal, “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou: The Barefoot Nun Who Became Ethiopia’s ‘Piano Queen,’” BBC News, April 2, 2023, sec. Africa, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-65100892

(5) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, trans. Sarah Helena Keller, sleeve notes for Spielt Eigene Kompositionen (Mississippi Records, 2022).

(6) Florent Mazzoleni, “Ethiopia Song: Emahoy Tsegué - Maryam Guèbrou - Piano Solo,” Les Inrockuptibles, February 28, 2006, https://www.lesinrocks.com/musique/ethiopia-song-emahoy-tsegue-maryam-guebrou-piano-solo-7770-28-02-2006/.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Thom Jurek, “Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou - Ethiopiques, Vol. 21: Ethiopia Song,” Allmusic, accessed December 9, 2022, https://www.allmusic.com/album/ethiopiques-vol-21-ethiopia-song-mw0000352649.

(9) Silvia Guidi, “Chopin in scala abissina,” L’Osservatore Romano, September 2, 2013, https://www.vatican.va/news_services/or/or_quo/200q01.pdf.

(10) Ethan Iverson, “The Story of the Wind,” DO THE M@TH (blog), April 21, 2017, https://ethaniverson.com/2017/04/21/the-story-of-the-wind/.

(11) Jonathan Derbyshire, “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Musician and Nun, 1923-2023,” Financial Times, April 1, 2023, sec. Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, https://www.ft.com/content/006522c8-b77d-456d-9203-cace417b170f.

(12) Richard Robert, “Review of Éthiopiques Vol. 21 (unknown publication),” Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Publisher, accessed November 27, 2023, https://www.emahoymusicpublisher.com/post/reviews.

(13) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, “Emahoy Tsegue Mariam Guebru: Nun, Pianist, Composer,” in Temsalet: Phenomenal Ethiopian Women, ed. Mary-Jane Wagle (Los Angeles: TSEHAI Publishers, 2015), 198–201.

(14) Kentiba is the title of “mayor”.

(15) Bairu Tafla, “Four Ethiopian Biographies: Däjjazmač Gärmamé, Däjjazmač Gäbrä-Egzi’abehér Moroda, Däjjazmač Balča and Käntiba Gäbru Dästa,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 7, no. 2 (July 1969): 22–31; Francis Falceto, liner notes for Éthiopiques, Vol. 21 (Buda Musique, 2006); Bahru Zewde, “Gebru Desta,” in Dictionary of African Biography (Oxford University Press, 2011), https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195382075.001.0001/acref-9780195382075-e-0725.

(16) Reidulf K. Molvaer, “Siniddu Gebru: Pioneer Woman Writer, Feminist, Patriot, Educator, and Politician,” Northeast African Studies 4, no. 3 (1997): 61–75, https://doi.org/10.1353/nas.1997.0012.

(17) Falceto, liner notes for Éthiopiques, Vol. 21; Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, liner notes for The Visionary (Emahoy Tsegue- Maryam Music Foundation, Inc., 2012).

(18) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, "Biography" in Selected Piano Compositions.

(19) Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1965), p. 194; Aaron Matteo Terrazas, “Beyond Regional Circularity: The Emergence of an Ethiopian Diaspora,” migrationpolicy.org, June 1, 2007, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/beyond-regional-circularity-emergence-ethiopian-diaspora.

(20) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, "Biography" in Selected Piano Compositions.

(21) Ashenafi Kebede, “The Music of Ethiopia: Its Development and Cultural Setting” (Wesleyan University, 1971); Ashenafi Kebede, “Musical Innovation and Acculturation in Ethiopian Culture,” African Urban Studies, 1979, 77–87.

(22) Alexander Kontorowicz and Stephen West, “Musical Development in Ethiopia: A Conference with Alexander Kontorowicz,” The Etude Magazine, 1949.

(23) The nature of this refusal is especially ambiguous (as noted by Molleson 2017, Petrusich 2023); intriguingly, Falceto 2006 characterizes it as a personal decision by the Emperor Haile Selassie himself.

(24) Stoffregen Pedersen, The History of the Ethiopian Community in the Holy Land from the Time of Emperor Tewodros II till 1974; Benny Furst, “The Ark-Keepers of Jerusalem: The Story of the Ethiopian Christian Community in the Holy City,” in Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbru, ed. Itay Mautner, trans. Danielle Zilberberg (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Season of Culture, 2013), 22–34.

(25) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, “Ethiopia: The Evergreen Country,” May 1995.

(26) Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1991, 2nd edition, Eastern African Studies (Oxford; Athens, OH; Addis Ababa: Ohio University Press, 2001); Donald L. Donham, Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution (Berkeley ; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999).

(27) Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Sing and Sing On: Sentinel Musicians and the Making of the Ethiopian American Diaspora, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022), p. 99.

(28) Recorded communication with Mary Sutton, 2018.

(29) Ben Shalev, “A Musical Secret, Hidden Away at an Ethiopian Convent in Jerusalem,” Haaretz, August 16, 2013, https:// www.haaretz.com/jewish/2013-08-16/ty-article/.premium/jerusalem-ethiopian-convent-hides-musical-gem/0000017f-f039-d497-a1ff-f2b91cbc0000?_amp=true; Tadias Magazine, “Historic Concert by Ethiopian Nun Pianist & Composerin D.C.,” Tadias Magazine (blog), accessed March 18, 2023, http://www.tadias.com/07/08/2008/historic-concert-by-ethiopian-nun-pianist-composer-in-dc/, see comment section.

(30) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, “Ethiopia: The Evergreen Country.”

(31) Tadias Staff, “Interview With Hanna M. Kebbede, CEO of Emahoy Music Foundation,” Tadias Magazine (blog), April 10, 2016, http://www.tadias.com/04/10/2016/interview-with-hanna-m-kebbede-ceo-of-emahoy-music-foundation/.

(32) For early reviews, see “Reviews,” Emahoy Publisher, accessed November 20, 2023, https://www.emahoymusicpublisher.com/post/reviews.

(33) Itay Mautner, ed., Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbru (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Season of Culture, 2013).

(34) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, Music for Piano, ed. Evgeny Oslon, Maya Dunietz, and Ilan Volkov (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Season of Culture, 2013).

(35) Shalev, “A Musical Secret, Hidden Away at an Ethiopian Convent in Jerusalem.”

(36) François-Xavier Gomez, “Tsegué-Mariam Guébrou, gammes sœurs,” Libération, August 26, 2013, https://www.liberation.fr/culture/2013/08/26/tsegue-mariam-guebrou-gammes-soeurs_927225/.

(37) Guidi, “Chopin in scala abissina.”

(38) Kate Molleson, “The Rediscovery of the Music of Emahoy,” The Herald, December 23, 2014, https://www.heraldscotland.com/life_style/arts_ents/13194709.rediscovery-music-emahoy/.

(39) Kate Molleson, “The Extraordinary Life of Ethiopia’s 93-Year-Old Singing Nun,” The Guardian, April 17, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/apr/17/ethiopia-93-year-old-singing-nun-emahoy-tsegue-maryam-guebrou.

(40) “The Honky Tonk Nun,” BBC Radio 4, 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08mb1ft.

(41) Kate Molleson, Sound Within Sound: Radical Composers of the Twentieth Century (Abrams Press, 2022).

(42) Giovanni Russonello, “10 Things That Keep Norah Jones Grounded,” The New York Times, June 2, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/02/arts/music/norah-jones-favorites.html.

(43) Lydia Abraham, “How the Haunting Score for ‘Passing’ Was Made,” Netflix Queue, December 2, 2021, https://netflixqueue.com/passing-score-dev-hynes/en-gb.

(44) Ted Gioia, “The Honky-Tonk Nun of Ethiopia,” December 28, 2022, https://www.honest-broker.com/p/the-honky-tonk-nun-of-ethiopia.

(45) Iverson, “The Story of the Wind.”

(46) Alex Westfall, “How the Cult Classic Recordings of a 96-Year-Old Nun Became the Soundtrack to Garrett Bradley’s New Documentary Time,” Pitchfork, October 27, 2020, https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/time-documentary-soundtrack-garrett-bradley-interview/.

(47) Andy Beta, “The Honky Tonk Nun: Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou,” In Sheep’s Clothing Hi-Fi (blog), December 1, 2020, https://insheepsclothinghifi.com/emahoy-tsegue-maryam-guebrou/.

(48) Amanda Petrusich, “The Otherworldly Compositions of an Ethiopian Nun,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2023.

(49) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, Selected Piano Compositions.

(50) Pianists include Sarah Cahill, Brendan Nguyen, Maria Corley, and Sophie Lippert.

(51) “The Honky Tonk Nun.”


Further recommended reading

Beduya, José. “Music Student Helps Expand Ethiopian Nun’s Musical Legacy.” Cornell Chronicle. Accessed October 31, 2023. https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2023/07/music-

Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru. “Emahoy Tsegue Mariam Guebru: Nun, Pianist, Composer.” In Temsalet: Phenomenal Ethiopian Women, edited by Mary-Jane Wagle, 198–201. Los Angeles: TSEHAI Publishers, 2015.

———. Selected Piano Compositions. Edited by Mary Sutton. Alexandria, VA: Emahoy Tsegue-

Maryam Music Foundation, Inc., 2018.

Mamana, J. “On Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.” N+1 (blog), April 12, 2023. https://www.

Mautner, Itay, ed. Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbru. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Season of Culture, 2013.

Pottier, Jean-Marie. “L’art de la fugue – Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.” Magic, 2023. Tadias Staff. “Interview With Hanna M. Kebbede, CEO of Emahoy Music Foundation.” Tadias

m-kebbede-ceo-of-emahoy-music-foundation/.


List of primary biographical sources

Emahoy Music Publisher. “Meet Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru.” Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music. Accessed August 17, 2022. https://www.emahoymusicpublisher.com/about-

Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru. Autobiographical letters, n.d.

———. Liner notes for Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru. Mississippi Records, 2022.

———. “Emahoy Tsegue Mariam Guebru: Nun, Pianist, Composer.” In Temsalet: Phenomenal Ethiopian Women, edited by Mary-Jane Wagle, 198–201. Los Angeles: TSEHAI

Publishers, 2015.

———. “Ethiopia: The Evergreen Country,” May 1995.

———. Ethiopian Nun Talks About Her Music. Interview by Alula Kebede, 2006.

———. Recorded communication with Mary Sutton, 2018.

———. “Biography” in Selected Piano Compositions. Edited by Mary Sutton. Alexandria, VA: EmahoyTsegue-Maryam Music Foundation, Inc., 2018.

———. Liner notes for Spielt Eigene Kompositionen. Mississippi Records, 2022.

———. Liner notes for The Visionary. Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Music Foundation, Inc., 2012. Falceto, Francis. Liner notes for Éthiopiques, Vol. 21. Buda Musique, 2006.

Mautner, Itay, ed. Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbru. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Season of Culture, 2013.

“The Honky Tonk Nun.” BBC Radio 4, 2017. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08mb1ft. Yilma, Jappi. “EMAHOY TSEGIE MARIAM GEBRU: AKA Yobdar Gebru,” n.d.


Other works cited

Abraham, Lydia. “How the Haunting Score for ‘Passing’ Was Made.” Netflix Queue, December 2, 2021. https://netflixqueue.com/passing-score-dev-hynes/en-gb.

Ashenafi Kebede. “Musical Innovation and Acculturation in Ethiopian Culture.” African Urban Studies, 1979, 77–87.

———. “The Music of Ethiopia: Its Development and Cultural Setting.” Wesleyan University, 1971.

Bahru Zewde. A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1991. 2nd edition. Eastern African Studies. Oxford; Athens, OH; Addis Ababa: Ohio University Press, 2001.

———. “Gebru Desta.” In Dictionary of African Biography. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Bairu Tafla. “Four Ethiopian Biographies: Däjjazmač Gärmamé, Däjjazmač Gäbrä-Egzi’abehér

Moroda, Däjjazmač Balča and Käntiba Gäbru Dästa.” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 7, no. 2 (July 1969): 22–31.

Beta, Andy. “The Honky Tonk Nun: Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.” In Sheep’s Clothing Hi-Fi (blog), December 1, 2020. https://insheepsclothinghifi.com/emahoy-tsegue-maryam-

Derbyshire, Jonathan. “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Musician and Nun, 1923-2023.” Financial Times, April 1, 2023, sec. Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.

Donham, Donald L. Marxist Modern: An Ethnographic History of the Ethiopian Revolution. Berkeley ; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999.

Emahoy Publisher. “Reviews.” Accessed November 20, 2023.

Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru. “Emahoy Tsegue Mariam Guebru: Nun, Pianist, Composer.” In

Temsalet: Phenomenal Ethiopian Women, edited by Mary-Jane Wagle, 198–201. Los Angeles: TSEHAI Publishers, 2015.

———. “Ethiopia: The Evergreen Country,” May 1995.

———. Music for Piano. Edited by Evgeny Oslon, Maya Dunietz, and Ilan Volkov. Jerusalem:

Jerusalem Season of Culture, 2013.

———. Selected Piano Compositions. Edited by Mary Sutton. Alexandria, VA: Emahoy Tsegue-

Maryam Music Foundation, Inc., 2018.

———. The Visionary. Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Music Foundation, Inc., 2012.

Falceto, Francis. Liner notes for Éthiopiques, Vol. 21. Buda Musique, 2006.

Furst, Benny. “The Ark-Keepers of Jerusalem: The Story of the Ethiopian Christian Community in the Holy City.” In Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbru, edited by Itay Mautner, translated by Danielle Zilberberg, 22–34. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Season of Culture, 2013.

Genzlinger, Neil. “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Nun With a Musical Gift, Dies at 99.” The New York Times, April 3, 2023, sec. Arts.

Gioia, Ted. “The Honky-Tonk Nun of Ethiopia,” December 28, 2022. https://www.honest-

Gomez, François-Xavier. “Tsegué-Mariam Guébrou, gammes sœurs.” Libération, August 26,

Guidi, Silvia. “Chopin in scala abissina.” L’Osservatore Romano, September 2, 2013. https://www.vatican.va/news_services/or/or_quo/200q01.pdf.

Iverson, Ethan. “The Story of the Wind.” DO THE M@TH (blog), April 21, 2017.

https://ethaniverson.com/2017/04/21/the-story-of-the-wind/.

Jurek, Thom. “Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou - Ethiopiques, Vol. 21: Ethiopia Song.” Allmusic.

Kalkidan Yibeltal. “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou: The Barefoot Nun Who Became Ethiopia’s ‘Piano Queen.’” BBC News, April 2, 2023, sec. Africa.

Kontorowicz, Alexander, and Stephen West. “Musical Development in Ethiopia: A Conference with Alexander Kontorowicz.” The Etude Magazine, 1949.

Levine, Donald N. Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture. Chicago and London:The University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Mautner, Itay, ed. Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbru. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Season of Culture, 2013.

Mazzoleni, Florent. “Ethiopia Song: Emahoy Tsegué - Maryam Guèbrou - Piano Solo.” Les Inrockuptibles, February 28, 2006. https://www.lesinrocks.com/musique/ethiopia-song-

Molleson, Kate. Sound Within Sound: Radical Composers of the Twentieth Century. Abrams Press, 2022.

———. “The Extraordinary Life of Ethiopia’s 93-Year-Old Singing Nun.” The Guardian, April 17, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/apr/17/ethiopia-93-year-old-singing-nun-

———. “The Rediscovery of the Music of Emahoy.” The Herald, December 23, 2014.

Molvaer, Reidulf K. “Siniddu Gebru: Pioneer Woman Writer, Feminist, Patriot, Educator, and

Politician.” Northeast African Studies 4, no. 3 (1997): 61–75.

Murphy, Brian. “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Ethiopian Nun and Piano Virtuoso, Dies at 99.”Washington Post, April 5, 2023.

Persoon, Joachim. “The Ethiopian Monk: A Changing Concept of Masculinity.” Institute of Ethiopian Studies 35, no. 1 (June 2002): 43–65.

Petrusich, Amanda. “The Otherworldly Compositions of an Ethiopian Nun.” The New Yorker, April 7, 2023.

Robert, Richard. “Review of Éthiopiques Vol. 21 (unknown publication).” Emahoy Tsege

Mariam Music Publisher. Accessed November 27, 2023.

Russonello, Giovanni. “10 Things That Keep Norah Jones Grounded.” The New York Times,

Shalev, Ben. “A Musical Secret, Hidden Away at an Ethiopian Convent in Jerusalem.” Haaretz,

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. Sing and Sing On: Sentinel Musicians and the Making of the

Ethiopian American Diaspora. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University

of Chicago Press, 2022.

Stoffregen Pedersen, Kirsten. The History of the Ethiopian Community in the Holy Land from

the Time of Emperor Tewodros II till 1974. Edited by Geries Sa’ed Khoury. Jerusalem:

Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research, Tantur, 1983.

Tadias Magazine. “Historic Concert by Ethiopian Nun Pianist & Composer in D.C.” Tadias Magazine (blog). Accessed March 18, 2023. http://www.tadias.com/07/08/2008/historic-

Tadias Staff. “Interview With Hanna M. Kebbede, CEO of Emahoy Music Foundation.” Tadias

Terrazas, Aaron Matteo. “Beyond Regional Circularity: The Emergence of an Ethiopian

Diaspora.” migrationpolicy.org, June 1, 2007.

“The Honky Tonk Nun.” BBC Radio 4, 2017. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08mb1ft. Westfall, Alex. “How the Cult Classic Recordings of a 96-Year-Old Nun Became the

Soundtrack to Garrett Bradley’s New Documentary Time.” Pitchfork, October 27, 2020.



Copyright © 2023 by Thomas Feng



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