In 2017, the BBC broadcast a radio documentary entitled The Honky Tonk Nun. Its topic was a classically educated piano-playing nonagenarian denizen of the Debre Genet monastery in Jerusalem.
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou had come to international prominence somewhat over a decade earlier, when the French musicologist Francis Falceto launched an album of her solo piano music in his critically acclaimed Éthiopiques collection. The album, which contained 16 of Guèbrou’s personal compositions recorded over 4 a long time, appeared to induct her into the custom of so-called Ethio-jazz, which Falceto had roughly single-handedly delivered to western consideration. However, in reality, her work is totally sui generis.
Because the American critic Ted Gioia has written, “There is no such thing as a style for funky Ethiopian nuns.” Her items can evoke, within the house of a few bars, Chopin or Debussy, the Mississippi Delta blues and the music of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Guèbrou, who has died on the age of 99, was born in Addis Ababa in 1923, right into a rich and well-connected household. Her father, Kentiba Guèbrou, was a diplomat and mental.
On the age of six, Guèbrou and her sister had been despatched away to boarding faculty in Switzerland. They had been the primary Ethiopian women ever to be despatched overseas to be educated.
Whereas there she learnt to play the piano and the violin and, as she put it, turned “captivated by music” — particularly western classical music.
The Israeli pianist Maya Dunietz, a good friend and collaborator of Guèbrou’s, has emphasised this side of the Ethiopian’s musical formation: “In her personal eyes the composer sees herself as persevering with the legacy of Beethoven and Schumann and Chopin and Brahms . . . And all the opposite issues that sneak in there, they’re simply there as a result of she tells the story of her life within the music.”
Within the early Nineteen Thirties, Guèbrou returned to Addis Ababa, the place she started to offer recitals and as soon as carried out for the emperor, Haile Selassie, at his palace.
However her burgeoning musical profession was delivered to an abrupt halt by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935. Within the chaos, three members of her household had been killed. After which, in 1937, Guèbrou and the surviving family members had been made prisoners of warfare by the Italians and interned on the island of Asinara, north of Sardinia.
After the defeat of Italy in east Africa in 1941, she was in a position to begin finding out music once more. She moved to Cairo, the place she studied with the Polish violinist Alexander Kantorowicz.
Later, in dialog with the BBC, Guèbrou recalled her Egyptian sojourn with fondness. “It was a really good time,” she mentioned. “I used to be practising 5 hours piano, 4 hours violin, daily . . . Beethoven, Chopin. Generally I used to be enjoying Schubert, Mozart. Strauss I appreciated very a lot.”
Guèbrou returned to Addis Ababa on grounds of ailing well being after two years and was later supplied a scholarship on the Royal Academy of Music in London. However, for causes that might stay obscure for the remainder of her life, she by no means made it to England.
“I don’t know what occurred,” she mentioned. “However that broke my music[al] life. I didn’t need to play any extra. I used to be so upset.”
A non secular epiphany adopted. Guèbrou acquired holy communion from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church after a interval of torment throughout which she had refused meals. She then retreated to the Guishen Maryam monastery in a mountainous area a number of hundred miles north of Addis Ababa. She was ordained as a nun aged 21.
Guèbrou spent the following 10 years there, dwelling, as she put it, like a “hermit”. “They advised me the place was blessed by the blood of Jesus Christ,” she recalled. “So I didn’t need to stroll with footwear on. I went 10 years [with] no footwear.” And save for the liturgical plainsong of the church, music was absent from her life, too.
However she ultimately did return to the piano within the early Sixties, immersing herself in indigenous Ethiopian varieties, with their distinctive five-note scales, which would go away their imprint on her personal compositions.
Guèbrou recorded intermittently from the late Sixties till 1984, when she left Addis Ababa and moved to Jerusalem. It was there that she later met Dunietz. “I used to be simply caught within the magic of her sound,” the latter remembered.
The 2 ladies labored collectively to carry extra of Guèbrou’s music to a wider viewers — though she insisted that she “didn’t need to be well-known actually”.