The honky-tonk nun

Emahoy 1

To accompany my post on Ethio-jazz, the whimsical piano music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (1923–2023) made another great coup for Buda Musique producer Francis Falceto in the CD series Éthiopiques. Vol. 21 (2006) opens with the enchanting sounds of The homeless wanderer (playlist):

In 2017 Kate Molleson visited Emahoy to make an engaging BBC radio programme, The honky-tonk nun. Below I also cite obituaries in the Guardian, Songlines, The New Yorker, and the BBC, as well as wiki and a biography on her Foundation’s website.

From 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. […]

Emahoy 2
Source.

Her father, the European-educated diplomat and former vice-president of Ethiopia, 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 Guèbrou 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).

Following Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, Emahoy spent time in confinement with her family on an island near Sardinia (cf. this post). In 1948 she was offered a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but for some reason she couldn’t take up the offer. Depressed and apparently disillusioned, she abandoned high society life to take holy orders, going to live barefoot at an austere convent on the holy mountain of Gishen Mariam north of Addis Ababa.

There she stayed for a decade before returning to Addis to live with her mother, when she started playing the piano again; her recordings between 1963 and the mid-70s have become the basis for her canon. She remained in Ethiopia after the 1974 coup, but was increasingly involved in charity projects with the Ethiopian Orthodox church in Jerusalem, where after her mother’s death in 1984 she lived in a convent for the rest of her life.

In the words of John Lewis, her compositions are a “curious fusion of fin de siècle parlour piano, gospel, ragtime, Ethiopian folk music, and the choral traditions of the country’s Orthodox church… pitched somewhere between Keith Jarrett, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin, and Professor Longhair”, using

a series of pentatonic scales, or kignits [useful intro here], 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). Guèbrou’s piano playing manipulated these modes to draw us in and hypnotise us, like a snake charmer with a pungi.

Here’s an excerpt from the long-awaited documentary Labyrinth of belonging:

2 thoughts on “The honky-tonk nun

  1. What a line from the Foundation website:

    “Her father, the European-educated diplomat and former vice-president of Ethiopia, 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.”

    Reading this once one won’t ever forget, so drastic it is!

    Great documentation on various drumming styles in the ‘kignits’ intro link, and the wonderful final film…
    Big thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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