Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou: The barefoot nun who became Ethiopia's 'piano queen'

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Portrait of EmahoyImage source, Buda Musique

By Kalkidan Yibeltal

BBC News, Addis Ababa

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, the composer and piano-playing nun who died this week astatine the property of 99, had an bonzer life, which included being a trailblazer for women's equality and walking barefoot for a decennary successful the isolated mountains of bluish Ethiopia.

Listening to 1 of her works tin beryllium disconcerting.

It sometimes feels similar being tossed astir successful a tiny vessel astatine sea, perpetually disconnected balance, with small to clasp connected to. The clip signature appears to displacement and the standard drifts successful and retired of familiarity.

The dependable of the pioneering pianist reflected the mode her beingness oscillated betwixt parallel worlds.

She was trained successful Western classical euphony but was arsenic the merchandise of accepted Orthodox Christian chants and tunes.

Her unsocial philharmonic dependable led 1 critic, Kate Molleson, to reason that Emahoy should beryllium included alongside much acquainted names erstwhile considering large 20th Century composers.

As a young person, Emahoy was a free-spirited modern pistillate but she spent overmuch of her aboriginal beingness arsenic a reclusive.

She became a devout nun who lived a humble beingness successful a monastery successful a distant portion of her country. But successful an earlier clip she had moved successful the precocious nine of the capital, Addis Ababa, wherever she performed successful the tribunal of the country's past Emperor, Haileselassie I.

Most of her important philharmonic works - recognisable successful their complexity and evident effortlessness - came successful the 1960s and 1970s.

This was during a clip erstwhile her contemporaries successful Addis Ababa were blending Western beats with the Ethiopian pentatonic - oregon five-note - standard to make a unsocial fusion of sounds and styles that would aboriginal beryllium dubbed Ethio-jazz.

The genre is marked by shuffling psyche and funky euphony arsenic good arsenic big-band plaything pieces.

But Emahoy's compositions and benignant were distinct. They were conscionable her and her soft producing an intimate, meditative - and unsettling - melancholy informed by a fascinating beingness punctuated by the momentous events her state experienced during the past century.

Image source, Buda Musique

Image caption,

Emahoy, seen successful this undated picture, was erstwhile portion of Addis Ababa's glamorous precocious society

She was calved successful Addis Ababa successful December 1923 into a salient aristocratic family. Her begetter was a politician of the humanities metropolis of Gondar successful the country's north.

Her fixed sanction was Yewubdar - Amharic for "the astir beauteous one"- a sanction she utilized until she was ordained arsenic a nun astatine the property of 21.

And with her household came privilege and opportunities.

As a kid she was sent to Switzerland with her sister - the archetypal Ethiopian girls to person been sent overseas for education. It was successful a Swiss boarding schoolhouse that she archetypal encountered Western classical euphony and astatine the property of 8 began playing violin and the piano.

In Europe she felt alienated. "Loneliness grew up with maine similar a puerility friend," she said successful a publication astir her father's beingness written by her brother, Dawit Gebru.

Music was her consolation.

Upon her instrumentality to Ethiopia astatine the property of 11 she was already an outgoing young miss with an appetite for fashion. But past warfare and calamity knocked.

In 1936 Benito Mussolini's Italy invaded Ethiopia. Three members of her household were killed and she was forced into exile connected an land successful the Mediterranean. The sidesplitting of her relatives near a beardown content connected her - aboriginal she would constitute a song, The Ballad of the Spirits, successful their memory.

After 5 years of occupation, the Italians near Ethiopia and Emahoy returned location wherever she began enactment astatine the ministry of overseas affairs - the archetypal pistillate caput there. And she drove cars - a rarity for a pistillate - erstwhile the bulk of Ethiopians utilized a equine and cart for travel.

She was determined that her sex would not get successful the way.

"Even successful my teenage [years] I would say: 'What is the quality betwixt boys and girls? They are equal," she told euphony writer Molleson for a 2017 BBC documentary astir her life.

A fewer years aboriginal she was erstwhile again connected road.

This clip to the Egyptian capital, Cairo, to survey euphony nether the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz.

She practised 9 hours a time but it was the searing vigor that she could not handle. As a consequence, she returned to the cooler climes of Addis Ababa with her teacher, who was appointed the caput of the Imperial Guard Band.

While she seemed to bask the favours of the emperor for whom she played her music, not each successful the aristocratic people were impressed. So erstwhile she was fixed the accidental to proceed her studies astatine the Royal Academy of Music successful London, she was not permitted to question - a determination for which her household blasted immoderate elder officials.

It changed the trajectory of her life.

Emahoy was heartbroken and sick to the constituent of being admitted to hospital. Subsequently she took a heavy dive into religion. Eventually, she abandoned euphony - and the metropolis - for a hilltop monastery successful a distant portion of bluish Ethiopia.

She became a nun, shaved her caput and stopped wearing shoes.

The decease of the monastic community's archbishop and problems with the souls of her feet led her to instrumentality to the superior successful her 30s aft 10 years of isolation, Molleson says.

She resumed playing music. She continued to shun the spotlight but her compositions took disconnected astir this time.

Image source, Buda Musique

Image caption,

After 10 years successful a monastery successful bluish Ethiopia, Emahoy returned to the piano

Her years of solitary musings - and the melodramatic episodes of her eventful beingness - were reflected successful her compositions. Titles specified arsenic The Homeless Wanderer, Mother's Love and Homesickness hinted astatine what was connected her mind.

"Sadness was ever adjacent to maine similar a friend," Emahoy was quoted arsenic saying successful her brother's book.

Ethiopian euphony commentator Sertse Fresibhat called her aboriginal works "deep and thoughtful, [composed] astatine a young age" that received the adulation they deserved lone decades later.

She went connected to marque recordings successful Germany successful the 1960s and aboriginal 1970s to rise wealth for stateless charities, but lone gained notoriety successful the West much recently.

Much similar her modern Ethio-jazz musicians, she was introduced to the wider assemblage by French musicologist Francis Falceto. His bid of Éthiopiques albums were compilations of archive euphony from the 1960s and 1970s.

Image source, Buda Musique

Image caption,

Éthiopiques measurement 21 gave Emahoy's euphony a full caller radical of fans

Her collection, released successful 2006, gained acclaim and led to her enactment being utilized successful films and adverts.

But by that clip she was surviving successful an Ethiopian Orthodox Church monastery successful Jerusalem, Israel.

In 1984, erstwhile Ethiopia was successful the midst of a civilian warfare and successful the grips of a Marxist subject regime, she near for the Holy Land and lived the remainder of her beingness there.

She continued to practise and constitute and successful her new-found fame welcomed musicologists and critics to sermon her work. She besides enlisted Israeli pianist Maya Dunietz to instrumentality her manuscripts, and get them published.

In her location state she is often referred arsenic "the Piano Queen".

Her tunes are everyplace - immoderate are played during periods of nationalist mourning, portion others supply inheritance for audio books and vigor shows.

But it is imaginable that galore are unaware that they are her compositions.

They person a consciousness of timelessness that volition nary uncertainty proceed to find ears and an assemblage thrilled to larn much astir her near-100-year life.

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