She grabbed international attention in 1996 when her compositions became the 21st release in the Ethiopiques series of records that featured Ethio-jazz greats such as Mulatu Astatke and Alemayehu Eshete. But the 94-year-old nun has had an illustrious career in music, even performing for Emperor Haile Selassie in her younger years.
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou was born to a noble family but she later fled the communist regime in Ethiopia and moved to Jerusalem to work for the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarchy, where she now lives. Journalist Kate Molleson travelled to Jerusalem to meet the piano-playing nun trained in Western classical music and inspired by the ancient chants of the Orthodox church. The documentary is featured on BBC Radio 4 this month.
At 23, and having studied music in a Swiss boarding school, Guèbrou received a scholarship from the Royal Academy of Music in London. She tells Molleson that she was "refused permission to take up the scholarship" but does not elaborate. She then spent 10 years in a monastery on the holy mountain of Guishen in Ethiopia – barefoot and in solitary prayer and meditation. When she returned to Addis Ababa, she enriched the classical training of her youth with the chants she had sung in church.
“There’s a stunning timelessness to her music: the ornaments are virtuosic and the chords lilt like a Chopin waltz – almost but not quite," Molleson writes in her article for the Guardian. "With Emahoy, nothing is regular. No fixed metre, no pulse that can be set in notation, no strict adherence to any one scale system. Her melodies flit between traditions; they float on their own axis.”
Guèbrou has in recent years published her manuscripts with the help of Israeli musician and composer Maya Dunietz, and has set up a foundation in her name to help children to acquire instruments and music education.