Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, the composer and piano-playing nun who died this week aged 99, had an extraordinary life that consisted of being a trailblazer for women’s equality and spending a decade barefoot in the remote mountains to walk in northern Ethiopia.
Hearing one of their works can be unsettling.
At times it feels like being slung around in a small boat at sea, constantly thrown off balance with little support. The time signature seems to shift and the scale drifts in and out of familiarity.
The sound of the pioneering pianist reflected her life between parallel worlds.
She was trained in Western classical music but was also the product of traditional Orthodox Christian chants and melodies.
Her unique musical voice led one critic, Kate Molleson, to argue that Emahoy should be included alongside better-known names when it comes to great composers of the 20th century.
As a young person, Emahoy was a free-spirited, modern woman, but she spent much of her later life reclusive.
She became a devout nun, living a humble life in a convent in a remote part of her country. But earlier she had moved in the high society of the capital Addis Ababa, where she performed at the court of the country’s last emperor, Haileselassie I.
Most of her important musical works – recognizable by their complexity and apparent ease – were created in the 1960s and 1970s.
This was at a time when their Addis Ababa contemporaries were blending Western beats with the Ethiopian pentatonic scale – or five-note scale – to create a unique fusion of sounds and styles that would later be dubbed Ethio-jazz.
The genre is characterized by shuffling soul and funky music as well as big band swing tunes.
But Emahoy’s compositions and style were distinctive. It was just her and her piano creating an intimate, meditative – and unsettling – melancholy marked by a fascinating life cut short by the momentous events her country witnessed over the last century.
She was born in Addis Ababa in December 1923 into a prominent noble family. Her father was mayor of the historic city of Gondar in the north of the country.
Her first name was Yewubdar – Amharic for “the fairest” – a name she used until she was ordained as a nun at the age of 21.
And with her family came privilege and opportunity.
As a child she was sent to Switzerland with her sister – the first Ethiopian girls to be sent abroad for education. She first encountered Western classical music at a Swiss boarding school and began playing the violin and piano at the age of eight.
In Europe she felt alienated. “Loneliness grew up with me like a childhood friend,” she said in a book about her father’s life written by her brother Dawit Gebru.
Music was her comfort.
When she returned to Ethiopia at the age of 11, she was already an outgoing young girl with an appetite for fashion. But then war and tragedy came knocking.
In 1936 Benito Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia. Three members of her family were killed and she was forced into exile on an island in the Mediterranean Sea. The murder of her relatives left a strong impression on her – she later composed a song, The Ballad of the Spirits, in her memory.
After five years of occupation, the Italians left Ethiopia and Emahoy returned home, where she began working at the Foreign Ministry – as the first female secretary there. And she drove cars – a rarity for a woman – when the majority of Ethiopians used horse-drawn carts for travel.
She was determined that her gender would not get in her way.
“Even in my youth [years] I would say, “What’s the difference between boys and girls? They’re the same,” she told music journalist Molleson for a 2017 BBC documentary about her life.
A few years later she was on the road again.
This time to the Egyptian capital of Cairo to study music with the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz.
She practiced nine hours a day, but it was the scorching heat she couldn’t handle. As a result, she returned to the cooler climes of Addis Ababa with her teacher, who was appointed leader of the Imperial Guard Band.
While she seemed to enjoy the favor of the emperor, for whom she performed her music, not everyone in the aristocratic class was impressed. When she was offered the opportunity to continue her studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London, she was denied travel – a decision her family blames some high-ranking officials for.
It changed her life path.
Emahoy was so heartbroken and ill that he had to be hospitalized. She then delved deeply into religion. Eventually, she left music – and the city – for a hilltop monastery in a remote part of northern Ethiopia.
She became a nun, shaved her head and no longer wore shoes.
The death of the monastic community’s archbishop and problems with the souls of her feet prompted her to return to the capital in her 30s after 10 years of isolation, says Molleson.
She was playing music again. She continued to avoid the limelight, but her compositions began around this time.
Her years of lonely thoughts – and the dramatic episodes of her eventful life – are reflected in her compositions. Titles like The Homeless Wanderer, Mother’s Love and Homesickness hinted at what was on her mind.
“Sadness was always by my side like a friend,” Emahoy was quoted as saying in her brother’s book.
Ethiopian music commentator Sertse Fresibhat called her early works “profound and thoughtful, [composed] at a young age”, who only received the admiration they deserved decades later.
She recorded in Germany to raise money for homeless organizations in the 1960s and early 1970s, but only recently came to prominence in the West.
Much like her contemporary Ethio jazz musicians, she was introduced to a wider audience by French musicologist Francis Falceto. His series of Éthiopiques albums were compilations of archival music from the 1960s and 1970s.
Her 2006 collection was well received and resulted in her work being used in films and commercials.
But at the time, she was living in an Ethiopian Orthodox Church monastery in Jerusalem, Israel.
In 1984, when Ethiopia was in the midst of civil war and ruled by a Marxist military regime, she traveled to the Holy Land and spent the rest of her life there.
She continued to practice and compose, and in her newfound fame welcomed musicologists and critics to discuss her work. She also hired Israeli pianist Maya Dunietz to take over her manuscripts and publish them.
In her homeland, she is often referred to as the “piano queen”.
Their tunes can be heard everywhere – some are played during national mourning, while others serve as backgrounds for audio books and radio shows.
But it is possible that many do not know that these are her compositions.
They have a sense of timelessness that will no doubt continue to find ears and audiences excited to learn more about their nearly 100-year life.