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Thomas Feng on Emahoy's Upcoming Album, Souvenirs

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. Part of the program was a listening party for Emahoy's upcoming album, Souvenirs. The following is Thomas Feng's introduction to the listening party.



Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru Documentary
Thomas being interviewed for the upcoming Emahoy documentary

This past spring, I purchased Emahoy’s only full album of original songs, Souvenirs, from the gift shop at the Church of Kidane Mehret, in Jerusalem, where Emahoy had lived for almost the last four decades of her life. At the time, I was so surprised to have come across such a rarity that the double entendre of the title didn’t register until months later: the album was at once a souvenir from a souvenir shop, and a collection of nostalgic remembrances (as in the French meaning of the word as a verb) – souvenirs for Emahoy herself, recorded during her last years in Addis Ababa under the insurgent Derg regime.


Amharic song and verse often carries hidden layers of meaning through an idiom traditionally referred to as “wax and gold” (ሰም እና ዋርቅ säm ənna warq): a “wax” meaning, peeled away, reveals the “gold” underneath, for the reader or listener who knows to look for it. Such “studied use of ambiguity” (1), whether ironic, comic, critical, or poetic, imbues subtext with great richness, and renders hiddenness itself expressive; my own eventual realization of the double-meaning of Souvenirs had to it the weight of epiphany.


In another instance, on the album itself, Emahoy sings, in Amharic, “See the potter over there / Does she eat or does she fast? / Who could have revealed to her the secret / That clay is soil?” The last line hinges upon an Amharic pun between gel (meaning “clay”) and gela (meaning “body”), offering the alternative reading, “That bodies are soil?” – ashes to ashes, dust to dust (2). Such idiomatic wordplay makes Amharic verse difficult to translate, without obscuring crucial subtext on the one hand, or spoiling its revelation on the other (3).


Indeed, Emahoy chose for listeners to have to uncover the “gold” for themselves: Souvenirs, entirely in Amharic, despite listing each song in English, is the only album she ever released not to include liner notes or even segments of printed lyrics. For the present reissue, lyrics had to be translated anew, and sometimes transcribed by ear. The translations revealed further textual ambiguities. Despite composing at home in Addis Ababa, Emahoy appears continually to address Ethiopia and “home” as a distant place, complicating the patriotism of such songs as “Ethiopia My Motherland” and “Don’t Forget Your Country.” Many of the songs are sung in the second person, though she doesn’t always name a receiving subject, as in the refrain, “Where you live, is it sunny or cloudy?” And though she did continue to compose spirituals through this period, the relative paucity of religious imagery on the songs she selected for Souvenirs suggests a separate emotional preoccupation.


For all their emotional frankness, the songs on Souvenirs elude simple interpretations at face value. That doesn’t mean Emahoy didn’t want to world to hear them: as she once performed her “Ballad of the Spirits” from behind a curtain for a theater production (4), turning inward or away can be its own performance, opening space for freedom (5).


Thomas Feng

November 2023


(1) Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1965), p. 9.

(2) I’m grateful to Ermias Zemichael for this translation and explanation.

(3) Bahrnegash Bellete, “Translating Amharic Poems,” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters 33, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 58–63.

(4) Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, Liner notes for Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru (Mississippi Records, 2022).

(5) Summer Kim Lee, “Mitski, Ocean Vuong, and Asian American Asociality,” Social Text 37, no. 1 (March 2019): 27–50, https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-7286252.


Works cited

Bahrnegash Bellete. “Translating Amharic Poems.” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters 33, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 58–63.

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

Lee, Summer Kim. “Mitski, Ocean Vuong, and Asian American Asociality.” Social Text 37, no. 1

(March 2019): 27–50. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-7286252.

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


Copyright © 2023 by Thomas Feng



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