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Updated: Jul 20, 2021

Piano Solo by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

Review found here:

The celestial sound and inspirational story of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou are moving and beautiful. Now 91, Emahoy still plays the piano in the convent where she lives in Jerusalem. The sound she conjures from the instrument has no comparison. It could be called classical music, but it occupies a space all of its own. Its purity sets it apart. This is the music of the spirits, indivisible in its quiet perfection.

Her music appears to invent its own mesmerising landscape. There is a palpable sense of it coming from somewhere deep and of it belonging to that place, and somehow she manages to transport you there.

Each piece of hers is readily identifiable by its structure, colour, shape and tone. The individual threads unfold like prayers. There is generally a succession of passages that meander up and down scales, lines ebbing and flowing like gentle waves on the keys. Her magical touch on the piano is delicate and enchanting.

Guèbrou was born Yewubdar Gebru in Addis Ababa in 1923. She was sent to school in Switzerland at the age of six, and there occurred the first of two seminal moments in her life. She and her sister attended a piano recital, and thereafter Yewubdar devoted herself to music, studying first violin and then the piano. She was quickly marked out as a musical prodigy, and gave her first violin recital at the age of 10. A year later, she moved back to Ethiopia to continue her studies at the Empress Menen Secondary School. In 1937, at the beginning of the second Ethio-Italian War, Yewubdar and her family were taken prisoners of war by the Italians and sent first to the prison camp on the island of Asinara and later to Mercogliano near Naples.

After the war, she studied under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz in Cairo. Soon after, she returned to be with her family in Addis Ababa. From there she petitioned for permission to continue her musical studies in London but was denied by the Ethiopian authorities. The rebuke was to have a devastating effect on her. In the bleak days that followed, she fled to the Guishen Mariam monastery in Wollo Province. Embracing God was the second seminal moment in her life. Once inside she changed her name to Tsegué-Maryam and was given the title Emahoy.

She became a nun at 21, abandoned music and devoted herself to prayer and lived a life of asceticism, sleeping in a mud-and-stone hut and walking barefoot. It was only after rejoining her mother in Addis Ababa that she resumed playing and composing. In the mid 1960s, two decades after she joined the convent, and 43 years into her life, she made her first recordings.

Upon making those she moved to the Ethiopian church in Jerusalem with her mother, where she spent the next six years. She returned to the Holy Land permanently in 1984 after her mother’s death.

In August 2013, the nonagenarian’s scribbled musical scores were collected and published in a book, ensuring the survival of her music. All proceeds from this, along with any royalties from her recordings, go to the Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Gebrou Foundation established by her to give access to classical and jazz music to poor and disadvantaged children. I know from many years recommending this record that nobody has ever been less than staggered by it. Because it’s so hard to define, neither strictly speaking classical nor jazz nor African, but an unforced fusion of all three, it’s got an enthralling atmosphere that seems key to its warmth. The depth of her faith is discerniblein every composition. It’s all about the Love Supreme, and you don’t have to subscribe to any particular creed to feel and appreciate its gentle force.

Here is a woman who invented her own musical language in order to feel closer to her God. The recordings that are collected in this record are blessed with a spiritual richness I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere in music. It possesses undiluted soul in its truest, rarest sense.

Arthur Russell’s passion was played out largely in private. In completely opposite circumstances but in similar solitude, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Gebrou’s search for rapture is an utterly personal quest born of solitude and pure devotion. For almost three decades now she has been cloistered in her church, surrendering herself to her own life’s twin themes: faith and music. Her compositions have had an enthralling effect on those who hear them. I feel enlightened every time I go there. The love pursued with ardour is one of the roads to knowledge. This divine lady knows so much. I think it’s time you paid her a visit.

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