Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (1923–2023) was a classically trained musician and society girl who turned towards faith – and cultivated a style of playing like no other.
The music of the pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, who has died at the age of 99, seemed to reflect every area of her extraordinary life. A daughter of Addis Ababa’s upper classes, she was immersed in Ethiopian traditional song, then trained in classical violin and piano, embraced early jazz and later took holy orders. So it’s quite fitting that her compositions were a curious fusion of fin de siècle parlour piano, gospel, ragtime, Ethiopian folk music and the choral traditions of the country’s Orthodox church. A BBC radio documentary on her work was entitled The Honky Tonk Nun, and it seemed to sum up the paradoxical nature of her music – a mix of high and low art, sacred and profane, precise notation and free improvisation.
Emahoy might have remained unknown to the outside world were it not for the French musicologist Francis Falceto, who worked with the record label Buda Music to release an album of her archive recordings in 2006. It was part of a series of compilation albums of Ethiopian music entitled Éthiopiques. The series was a revelation, even to many people who thought they were familiar with Africa’s best music. Where there are certain instruments, rhythms, scales and voicings that are shared by several different regions around the continent, the music of Ethiopia – one of the world’s oldest Christian civilisations – stands distinct and discrete from anything in neighbouring countries.
Emahoy’s best-known contemporaries and compatriots, who also featured on the Éthiopiques series, were jazz and funk musicians such as Mulatu Astatke, Hailu Mergia and Mahmoud Ahmed, whose mix of shuffling, disjointed rhythms, seductive vocals and sizzling wah-wah guitar riffs remain a source of fascination. But Emahoy’s spartan solo piano recordings didn’t quite fit under the ambit of jazz. Compositions such as The Homeless Wanderer, Homesickness and Mother’s Love (several of which are now familiar from TV advertisements) were quizzical, stately, delightfully odd pieces pitched somewhere between Keith Jarrett, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin and Professor Longhair.
They use a series of pentatonic scales, or kignits, which are the building blocks of all Ethiopian music, from its ancient liturgical chants to its folk songs and funky pop music. These five-note scales are similar but musicologically quite distinct from Arabic maqams or Indian modes. They have names like the anchihoye, the tizita and the bati, and most have major and minor-key variations (some, like the ambassel, don’t have a minor or major third at all, and so have a wonderfully ambiguous, open-ended feel). Emahoy’s piano playing manipulated these modes to draw us in and hypnotise us, like a snake charmer with a pungi.
Her signature style on the piano was metrical and precise. All improvising pianists try to “bend” notes in some way, but Emahoy had a very distinctive way of doing it. She didn’t slur or slide or crunch the keys like a blues or boogie-woogie pianist might, but instead played very crisp trills that gave the impression of raising and lowering the pitch of a note, just like the florid curlicues that Bach might have precisely notated. Her music often didn’t obey strict tempo considerations, slowing down and then speeding up almost at random. Sometimes she’d use so much rubato that a song that started in waltz-time would end in 4/4.
This music was the product of an extraordinary backstory. Her father, the European-educated diplomat and mayor of Gondar, Kentiba Gebru Desta, was 78 years old when she was born, making her possibly the only person on the planet alive in 2023 with a parent born in 1845. The young Emahoy was a glamorous society girl, educated at a Swiss boarding school and fluent in several languages. She had piano and violin lessons at a classical conservatoire in Cairo (learning under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz), immersing herself in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann. On her return to Addis Ababa, she started to write her own compositions, and assisted Kontorowicz when he led the Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard Band (she recalls playing the Emperor some solo piano pieces and singing him a ballad in Italian).
In 1948, she was offered a place at the Royal Academy of Music in London but didn’t take up the offer, instead surprising her peers by taking holy orders and living – barefoot – in a convent outside Addis Ababa. By the early 1960s she started playing the piano again, and her recordings between 1963 and the mid-70s have become the basis for her canon. In 1984, she relocated to an Ethiopian Orthodox convent in Jerusalem.
Only a few months ago, the US label Mississippi records unearthed another cache of recordings she made in the 1970s, soon to be released as a new album called Jerusalem. It shows another side to her character. On Quand La Mer Furieuse (When the Raging Sea) she sings in a quavering, guttural French over a simple vamping piano. On a threnody entitled Famine Disaster 1974, she sounds like a cockney pub pianist playing a heartbreakingly mournful, major-key hymn. There is also a lot of harmonic complexity: on the track called Jerusalem, she changes mode mid-song and modulates into several keys before resolution; on Home of Beethoven she knits together a series of arrhythmic chromatic riffs to create a pleasingly modernistic fugue.
Until recently she was, from all accounts, still practising every day on an upright piano in her convent, and writing new material. Maybe some of these songs will yet emerge, as singular as the rest.
Originally published in The Guardian