by Raghav Raj
Arts & Culture Editor
In a nondescript car going down some nondescript highway, a besuited man tenderly speaks orders into his Amazon Echo device. “Alexa, pause my podcast,” he utters, and the droning voice in the background cuts out. “Set my temperature at home to 71 degrees,” he says, and it cuts to a picture of his Amazon Smart Thermostat raising the home’s temperature. “Turn on the lights,” he says, and the music floods in.
The rest of that commercial is negligible; his wife comes home, uses the Amazon Echo to call him during his drive to the hospital (where he’s a cardiologist?), and tells him to have fun at his job. More important is the song in the background, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s “Homesickness,” which imbues the whole affair with as much humanity as a commercial for Amazon could possibly muster. It is a strange, surreal synthesis that brings a music supervisor for some advertising agency — hired by a comically evil corporation to market a listening device that farms you for your precious data — towards the work of an Ethiopian nun who spent the last four decades of her life in a monastery in Jerusalem before her passing earlier this year at the age of 99. Perhaps that’s the purest expression of Guèbrou’s genius; there is no corporation whose muck obscures her music’s light towards the divine.
For the longest time, the sum of the Western world’s knowledge of Guèbrou’s music was a single CD from 2006: Ethiopiques 21: Piano Solo (originally titled Ethiopia Song), a 16-song compilation released by Buda Musique that draws from the thirty years worth of charity albums Guèbrou released from the 1960s onwards. Assembled by musicologist Francis Falceto as part of Buda’s long-running Ethiopiques series — which spotlights traditional and popular music from Ethiopia released during the 1960s and 1970s — it’s a wonderfully put-together compilation, an essential primer to the pianist’s beautiful, tender compositions.
The role of Buda Musique in disseminating Ethiopian music into the contemporary Western consciousness is undeniable; equally undeniable, however, is the tension between the label and the artists it has so eagerly promoted. Artists like the late saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya and the legendary composer Mulatu Astatke, both of whom have been featured in Ethiopiques compilations and have had volumes dedicated entirely to their work, are not shy about their distaste for the ways Falceto and Buda took advantage of their music without adequately compensating them.
Mekurya, in a 2012 interview with The Ethiopian Reporter, speaks pretty candidly about these feelings of exploitation: “Though he made tons of money with it, I sold my album with one thousand birr back in the 70’s to him… He talks good things about me but I did not make a dime out of it. Even if he was able to contribute to the recognition of our music worldwide, on the other hand he used us. He is making tons of money. I do not work with him; I work with other musicians and promoters, and I think he is not happy with that fact.”
Mentioning Astatke, Mekurya asserts that the father of Ethio-jazz “despises” Falceto, and “does not want to see his face.” Buda Musique may have played a large part in bringing this era of Ethiopian music back into the contemporary consciousness, but in monopolizing it under its international copyright, it has stripped the very creators of this music from the fruits of their work. It’s a business model that stands directly at odds with Guèbrou, who released records to raise money for the poor, the orphaned, and those ravaged by war in Ethiopia.
Her story has been told countless times, but it’s one worth repeating. Guèbrou was born in 1923 in Addis Ababa as Yewubdar Guèbru. (Emahoy, as she’s commonly referred to, is a religious honorific.) Her father, Kentiba Gebru Desta, was a high-ranking official during emperor Menelik II’s reign, and served as mayor in Harar and Gondar.
At age 6, Yewubdar, along with her older sister Senedu, was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, where she saw a blind pianist perform at a concert. It’s a moment that the pianist recalls in a 2017 BBC radio documentary about her, “The Honky-Tonk Nun,” as a sort of genesis. “It remained in my mind, in my heart,” she said. “After that, I was captivated by music.”
After studying piano and violin at the school, she returned to Ethiopia in 1933, attending secondary school, serving as a civil servant, and playing music for the Emperor Haile Selassie at his palace until his exile two years later after Ethiopia’s occupation under a fascist Italy. Three of her brothers were executed; Guèbrou was sent to a prison camp on the island of Asinara, and then to Mercogliano. After the war, she studied music in Cairo under Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz before returning to Ethiopia, where Kontorowicz took charge of the Imperial Bodyguard Band, and Guèbrou was employed as an assistant in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Guèbrou’s spiritual awakening occurred when she was in her 20’s, at a crossroads in her career. She had received a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and was potentially on her way to becoming a concert pianist when the opportunity fell apart for reasons that the pianist has mostly avoided discussing.
This part of her story is, as journalist Amanda Petrusich writes in her wonderful essay memorializing Guèbrou for The New Yorker, is a little blurry: “Emahoy fell into a heavy depression, refusing to consume anything other than coffee for twelve days. She was taken to the hospital, and it briefly seemed as though she might not survive. An Orthodox priest gave the last rites. Emahoy slept for more than twelve hours, and then, she said, she woke up with a peaceful mind.”
After this, she decamped to the Gishen Mariam monastery, located in the far corner of the Wollo Province, on top of a holy mountain. With no running water or electricity in the monastery, she slept on a bed of mud. It’s here where she was given her religious name, Tsegué-Maryam. In her interview with the BBC, she recounts: “I took off my shoes and went barefoot for 10 years. No shoes, no music, just prayer.”
In the 1960s, the patriarch who led Gishen Mariam passed away, and Guèbrou reunited with her mother in Addis. She also returned to her music, intensely studying the work of St. Yared, the sixth-century Aksumite composer whose work is the foundation of liturgical music for the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Most of Guèbrou’s widely-available music comes from this period between the 1960s and 1970s; in 1984, she fled Mengistu Haile Mariam’s regime and the ongoing famine for the Ethiopian Orthodox convent in Jerusalem where she’d spend the rest of her life.
Nearly three weeks after she passed away, the archival Portland-based label Mississippi Records released a new album of unreleased and virtually inaccessible piano pieces from Guèbrou. The label, whose mission statement focuses on “discarded music of the world,” collaborated with the Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Music Publisher, a non-profit established to preserve and remaster the composer’s body of work, and to fund music education for children in underserved communities. The album is called Jerusalem, and it draws on songs on her scarcely-found 1972 record Hymn of Jerusalem, along with some of her home recordings.
Even beyond her recent passing, there’s something profoundly timely about Jerusalem’s release. The album arrives as the spring comes into full bloom, a perfect metaphor for the graceful and delicate sound of Guèbrou’s piano, which cascades and meanders with a distinct, vernal effervescence. She wields the instrument in a sort of divine communion, every arpeggiated rise searching for the light ahead. As Petrusich beautifully puts it, it sounds like “a sparrow alighting on a branch; a wildflower bending toward the sun; a tiny, persistent sorrow.”
I’ve been listening a lot to Jerusalem over these past few weeks. It lingers in my headphones when I’m studying, and the swaying melodies of songs like “Have You Seen Assayeheghn?” pitter-patter into my head when I’m walking around campus. When I’m riding my bike on the trails, I’ve found that sometimes the birdsong melds into the music; the title track, in particular, seems to eagerly welcome the chirping bluejays, goldfinches, and chickadees into its aching, classical vein, a song as influenced by liturgical music as it is by Debussy or Satie.
Jerusalem often captures a singular composer reckoning with her past, both in terms of her musical forebears — “The Home of Beethoven,” which invokes the titular maestro’s late-period sonatas in its use of space and syncopated, floating progression — and in terms of the home she left behind. The first song here, “Famine Disaster 1974,” is a deeply elegiac composition; in the liner notes, Guèbrou talks about joining a group of Red Cross volunteers and witnessing firsthand the horrors of the famine, the haunting sight of “the lifeless, sad eyes gazing at you,” and the weeks and weeks of depression that followed the experience.
There are those tangled memories of a childhood spent in exile that permeate songs like “Farewell Eve,” a song that Guèbrou dedicated to her nieces. “Indeed,” she says in the song’s notes, “it is always sad to leave one’s home and country to go afar and live in a strange land.” And then there’s “Woigaye, Don’t Cry Anymore,” named after her late brother, who heard the composition a few weeks before his death and was so moved to tears that he requested his sister name the song for him. Like all of Guèbrou’s most powerful compositions, it is both achingly somber and utterly breathtaking, radiant even in its grief.
Yet, despite all the profound sadness found within Guèbrou’s music, there is hope. The darkened sky may be forecasting a violent storm, but on “Movement From Rainbow Sonata,” she reminds us in the liner notes of Noah’s covenant, a stunning streak of color appearing across the sky — “the sign of mercy.” For “Aurora,” she invokes an endless sky whose twinkling stars are fading into the night, the dawn of a spring morning in praise of the lord. And while writing about “The Pilgrim Song,” she again offers a prayer: “Heavenly Father, chase the night and let shine thy Light.”
At the center of it all is, to date, the only recording of Guèbrou singing — “Quand La Mer Furieuse,” perhaps the most deeply affecting composition on a compilation that’s full of them, and maybe the most overwhelmingly gorgeous thing that she ever made. A tender hymnal, the song is helmed by her voice, a jarringly expressive instrument as ghostly and captivating as her work on the piano. Searching and almost child-like in its innocence, it reminds me a lot of a composition from the Ethiopiques release, “The Song of the Sea”; indeed, in French, the song translates to “when the raging sea.”
In the notes for the song, she remembers the ocean liner voyage to Switzerland, the one she embarked on at the age of six with her eldest sister. They were some of the first Ethiopian girls to ever study abroad, a fact that can only really exist as a footnote in the grand scheme of her remarkable life. Even before her death, Guèbrou’s work was constantly entangled with her past, with her faith, with a God whose kindness and sacrifice she forever embraced.
She is gone now, leaving so much left unsaid, but her music — her memory — is still here, still serene, spiritual, and completely spellbinding into eternity and beyond. “It was too hot in the cabin to sleep, so we went outside on the deck,” she wrote. “Watching the beautiful sea and the waves going back and forth, I could not forget it.”