Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

Every time I have put this on at least three new conversions occur, where the listeners go on to permanently install this woman's music on their stereo. My neighbor even stalked me once just so she could listen to it more, until I just gave her my extra copy.

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is a nun currently living in Jerusalem. She grew up as the daughter of a prominent Ethiopian intellectual, but spent much of her young life in exile, first for schooling, and then again during Mussolini's occupation of Ethiopia's capitol city, Addis Ababa, in 1936. Her musical career was often tragically thwarted by class and gender politics, and when the Emperor himself actually went so far as to personally veto an opportunity for Guèbrou to study abroad in England, she sank into a deep depression before fleeing to a monastery in 1948. Today, she spends up to seven hours a day playing the piano in seclusion and even gave a concert to some lucky ducks in Washington D.C. a few years ago. A compilation of her compositions was re-issued on the consistently great Ethiopiques label. You can read more about her life at the Emahoy Music Foundation.

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  1. I have loved Ethiopian music since first heard Mahmoud Ahmed and this just adds to it. I like to think I could ID it as Ethiopian without eeing the name or her face but I may just be full of meself.

    Thanks for putting this out there. I need to get it. NOW!!!

  2. An African Catholic nun in Jerusalem who survived the terror of Mussolini and other hardships and is a uniquely talented pianist. What an amazing human being.

    1. Just a small correction. She’s Ethiopian Orthodox, a church that hasn’t been in communion with the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches for 1500 years.

  3. This is hypnotic stuff and was not at all what I was expecting to hear. Very unstructured and soothing. Mesmerizing, etc.
    Thanks for this post.

  4. Excellent. Thank you for sharing– I probably would never have come across this musician otherwise!

    1. Yeah, some Tatum in that right hand of hers. It struck me she plays piano as if it were a harp.

  5. I find it funny that my critique of her playing got “lost in the internet ether” even though I feel it has a valid post. I’ll say it again to see if this gets through.

    Her playing gets sort of grating a couple of minutes in. Same chords in the left hand and it sounds like she’s doing zig zags with a fist on pentatonic scales (It does have a Art Tatum feel but he had chordal structure that he was playing towards though).

    Just not my cup of tea I guess. Amazing life story though.

  6. Best argument for keeping the human race around a while longer that I’ve heard in a while. Really awesomely beautiful. Thank you.

  7. Nice picture; she doesn’t look 87. Why are so many of the pictures on the net so young, even when there are beautiful old photos available?

    I’m the sort of person who wore out all my old LPs of all the Keith Jarrett solo piano concerts decades ago, so this is one sort of music I also like a lot. Thanks for the tip!

  8. Are you guys all listening to a different clip or something? After that build-up, I was expecting something more impressive than interminable aimless noodling in a blues scale.

    Obviously, if you like it, then you like it; there’s no accounting for taste. But can someone explain to me why this is supposed to actually be any good? (Is it in fact supposed to be good? Or do you guys just enjoy aimless noodling?)

  9. JohnnyOC, I agree with you mostly. Whatever this is, it doesn’t really fit into a traditional account of Jazz (no swing, and no ii-V-I or friends), so Art Tatum references just strike me as weird. Her left hand seems really restrained to almost consciously anti-Tatum levels. Maybe it’s because I am a slightly obsessed Art Tatum/Oscar Peterson fan that I just don’t get the comparisons. It’s seems about as fair as comparing her to Glenn Gould (whose recordings I also adore).

  10. At first I thought it was total noodling on a blues scale. It got a little better as I just listened to it for what it was. And now I’m back at noodling. It really sounds like she was rolling her fist on the black keys like you do when you’re joking around. Of course lots of people thought this about Coltrane when he was in Miles’ band.

  11. I don’t mind that she was not playing something with traditional song structure. Her playing is very engrossing, and I could listen to it for quite some time before getting tired of it. In fact, I hope to find enough of it to have the chance.

    Her life story is wonderful too. What a tribute to human resilience.

  12. Where some people noodling around, I hear an otherworldly, meditative quality to this. You can’t listen to this with the expectation that this is an Ethiopian jazz musician. This is an Ethiopian musician who uses blues/jazz motifs as a touch point for her own sound.

  13. Pretty tedious noodling, in my opinion — like the stuff kids do on pianos when no one’s watching. Why does the song end at 7:11? It could have ended at 11:43 or 3:26 and made exactly the same impact. It’s interesting for a short time, but fails to go anywhere.

  14. In the interest of being open minded I went to the youtube page and gave more of her stuff a listen. Despite hearing this one as noodling some of the other stuff was quite interesting and musical.

  15. I think its a bit harsh saying that there’s no skill involved in what shes doing. I think the energy and dynamics in her playing are beautiful, precise and evocative.

  16. I recorded her recent concert in Washington DC.

    Meara, as a fellow sound designer, I’ve found your posts and articles in Make very interesting. Now that you bring up Emahoy we really have to meet. I didn’t see any obvious way to contact your here, so I’ll keep looking, but feel free to contact me.

    -Richard Humphries

  17. For all the comments on noodling, no one took the title in to account! Sounds like homeless wondering to me.

    (Wondering about what?)

  18. I dunno, does Ravi Shankar noodle? Realize, you’re listening to a religious mind in conversation with her personal angels. Possibly you can’t understand? It’s no more “boring” than flowing water, or American elm leaves playing with an October zephyr, and it’s not necessarily meant to amuse YOU.

  19. My dear Emahoy,
    Both I and my other half went through what you have gone through, but not at such a degree of measure.
    we are enjoying every moment of the music composition that you have presented us. And with God’s will we will be more than glad to meet you and spend some time with you.

    Sincerely
    Marcello Valentini

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