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Timeline: Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (1923 - )

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou was born in Addis Ababa in Ethopia.
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou was born in Addis Ababa in Ethopia.

August of 2013, the city of Jerusalem hosted a series of tribute concerts dedicated to the music of Ethiopian violinist, pianist and composer, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. It was the first time that her music had been performed in that city. However, her recordings had been around for decades. Her solo piano waltzes have a unique lilt and style, with an almost blues-like quality. Perhaps that’s why Guèbrou has been nickname “The Honky-Tonk Nun.”

Emahoy was born in Addis Ababa to a very influential, wealthy family. At the age of six, Guèbrou and her sister, Desta were sent to a boarding school in Switzerland. There she began her study of the piano and violin and was introduced to Western Classical music. After returning to Ethiopia, she pursued a career as a concert pianist and as a singer, performing for the Emperor Haile Selassie I. She was an outspoken feminist, fighting for equality and the right to be heard. She was the first woman to serve with the Ethiopian civil service, the first to sing in the Orthodox church and first to work as a translator with the church. Emahoy is fluent in seven different languages.

In 1936, Mussolini invaded Ethiopia and the Second Italo-Ethiopian War began. Members of Guèbrou’s family were murdered and the rest were taken as prisoners. After the war was over, Emahoy picked up her studies right where she left off. She traveled to Cairo, to study with the famous Polish violinist, Alexander Kontorowicz. At the age of 23, it seemed like all of her dreams were coming true. She was offered a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but for reasons we don’t know or understand, she was not granted permission to go.

This disappointment led her to abandon music and turn to God. Guèbrou became a nun, spending a decade, barefoot in a remote hilltop monastery in Ethiopia.

After ten years, she returned to Addis Ababa to live with her mother. Here, with the encouragement of her sister, Emahoy rekindled her love for music and began to develop her own style, blending together the classical music of her early training, the songs of the Ethiopian people and the chants that surrounded her in worship.

In the 1960s and 70s, Emahoy began a recording career, for the expressed purpose of raising funds for children of soldiers killed in war. To this day, all the proceeds of Guèbrou’s music, recordings and publications are used to help children in Africa and Washington D.C. discover and study music.

In 1984, as communism took hold in Ethiopia, Guèbrou left her homeland and settled in Jerusalem, where she continued her work in the Ethiopian monastery there. Emahoy turns 98 this year and her passion for music is only growing. She is still composing new pieces on an upright piano, draped in Ethiopian flags in her small room in the monastery.

Find out more and follow the Timeline.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.