A Musical Secret, Hidden Away at an Ethiopian Convent in Jerusalem

Few realized that Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Gebru, 89, is a talented musician and composer. Now a new book recounts her fascinating story.

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One morning about two years ago, the phone rang at the home of pianist Maya Dunietz and her husband, conductor Ilan Volkov. Over the line could be heard the faint voice of an elderly woman. It was Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Gebru. “I need your help,” she said to Dunietz, in English. “Could you come see me?”

Dunietz and Volkov had been waiting for this call for several years, ever since they first visited Emahoy in her small room at the Ethiopian convent in Jerusalem, where she has been living for the past 30 years.

“I will be turning 90 soon,” the nun told the two musicians. “I know that I will be going on to the next world, and I want to publish a book of the sheet music of my works. I don’t know how to do it. Could you help me?”

A few weeks ago, Dunietz sat on an improvised stage in the courtyard of the Israel Broadcasting Authority’s building in central Jerusalem, a few streets away from the Ethiopian convent. She performed ‏(together with accordionist Assaf Talmudi‏) two of the 12 works in the astonishing new book “Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Gebru: Music for Piano,” which is in fact two books in one: one of sheet music and another of articles about Emahoy’s fascinating life story and even more fascinating creations.

The first piece performed is called “Presentiment” − “a presentiment of a heavy stroke of fate,” as it is described in the book. Emahoy composed it in 1949, two years, she notes, before the death of her younger brother in a road accident. The second piece was “Golgotha,” after the place in Jerusalem where Christians believe Jesus died on the cross. Emahoy remembers the day on which she wrote that piece: February 19, 1970. As often happens in her work, the music here moves constantly between classical Western and Ethiopian musical genres.

“The use of a pattern moving from European classical music to distinctive Ethiopean sounds is without doubt the magic of ETM’S music,” writes Jerusalemite saxophonist Nadav Hever, a friend of the composer’s, in the new book.

The two pieces were performed at a launch event for the new book organized within the framework of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, an annual series of arts events in the capital. As usually happens at such occasions, speeches were made and big words like “virtuosity” and “ground-breaking” were used. These descriptions are not necessarily apt for Emahoy’s wonderful music, the great beauty of which can be attributed to its modesty and humility. It would be interesting to know what Emahoy herself would have thought about all the fanfare, but she was unwell and unable to attend the event ‏(and it was also not possible to interview her for this article‏).

“She was anticipating this so eagerly, and now ... I feel as though she has shifted into a lower gear,” said Dunietz before the performance, explaining that she and Volkov first heard Emahoy’s music in a London record store about seven years ago. What they listened to was a disc that came out in 2006 as part of the monumental set of CDs called “Ethiopiques,” which showcased for Western listeners the treasures of Ethiopian music of the 1960s and 1970s.

“After listening open-mouthed and reading the accompanying booklet, we were amazed to discover that the woman who had both composed and played this enchanting music was living in a monastery in Jerusalem,” write Dunietz and Volkov in the new book.

Before visiting the convent some years ago, they spoke with people involved in Ethiopian music. One of them was Nadav Hever, who had already met Emahoy by that time. He too had learned about her from the “Ethiopiques” disc.

“I am always checking up on what is new in Ethiopian music,” Hever says, “and Emahoy’s picture on the jacket of the disc intrigued me.” He mentioned her to a friend who lives on Ethiopia Street in Jerusalem near the convent, and to his astonishment his friend said: “Sure, she lives here in the convent. I’ve known her ever since I was a child. Knock on her door and tell her you are a friend of mine.” That friend had not even known she was a musician.

Hever knocked on Emahoy’s door, and she invited him in. “She was glad people were taking an interest in her music,” says the saxophonist, who began to visit the nun every week. They talked about music ‏(“And also about other things, even politics,” he adds‏). But they were unable to play music; there was no piano at the convent. Since coming to live in Jerusalem in 1984, Emahoy had not touched the instrument for which she wrote wonderful works that had been charming more and more lovers of Ethiopian music around the world. She told Hever that clergymen at the convent took a negative view of the fact that she played the piano. “It isn’t considered a religious instrument,” he explains.

Around the same time, Emahoy’s disc began to draw a lot of attention, and relatives of the nun from Washington managed to raised funds to buy her a piano.

Hever: “The money was sent to my account. I remember it was tens of thousands of shekels. The two of us went to a piano store on Shlomzion Street in Jerusalem and bought her a piano. She was very excited, but it was also difficult for her because she is very critical of herself. She sat down at the piano and said, ‘It isn’t going to be the way it used to be.’ But nevertheless she played, and gradually her fingers grew accustomed to the instrument. When I saw it became easier for her, I brought my clarinet − a saxophone is too noisy − and we played together. I have recordings but there isn’t anything that can be done with them. She would start and stop, start and stop. A lot of self-criticism. She is a very complex person. A character.”

Longing and sadness

Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam was born Yewubdar Gebru, to an aristocratic family in Addis Ababa in 1923. Her father was Kentiba Gebru, mayor of Gondar and vice president of Ethiopia’s first parliament. Her mother came from the family of the Empress Menen, Emperor Haile Selassie’s second wife. When Emahoy was 6 years old, she was sent with her older sister, who was 13, to study in Switzerland. According to the new book, they were the first Ethiopian girls educated in Europe.

The five years she lived in Switzerland far away from her parents profoundly influenced Emahoy and reverberate in her works. Subsequently, beautiful compositions like “Love,” “Homesickness,” “Mothers” and “The Song of the Sea” were born of the longing and the sadness in her soul at that time, but also affected by her wonder at the landscapes she saw and the experiences she underwent.

“We sat on the deck of the ship because it was too hot in the cabin and the beautiful sight of the full moon and the waves that looked like a moving silver field were engraved in me for my entire life,” she writes in the new book, alongside the sheet music for “Song of the Sea.”

In Switzerland − where the sisters lived, first, in the home of a priest who was a friend of their father’s, and later at a boarding school − Emahoy became acquainted with Western music. She studied violin and later, in the wake of the first concert she ever attended, she began to teach herself to play the piano.

“She doesn’t remember the name of the performer ‏(at the concert‏) but she will never forget the power with which his beautiful playing entered her heart,” according to Meital Ofer, in the new book. Ofer, who has accompanied Emahoy in recent months, writes a description of the young girl’s excitement: “Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam would like to thank the performer for a significant experience but she does not know how. She wants to go outside, to pick flowers, but in the Swiss winter no flower blooms. Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam begins to cry, and in tears she goes up to the pianist to share the experience with him, he understands her and he encourages her to start playing the piano. From that moment on the piano became a part of her, to this day.”

In 1934, Emahoy and her sister returned to Ethiopia, but two years later, when the Italian army occupied that country, the family was exiled to Italy and allowed to return to Addis Ababa only in 1939. Emahoy then went to work as a secretary at the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry ‏(according to the book, she was apparently the first woman to work in a government office‏), continued to play piano and also composed works for violin and piano. In the early 1940s, she went to study music in Egypt with the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz.

After returning to Ethiopia, she won a scholarship to study music in London and was delighted, but to her great disappointment was not granted an exit visa. According to Dunietz, Haile Selassie himself was responsible for that decision, which broke Emahoy’s spirit. She refused to eat for about two weeks, at the end of which she was on the brink of death. At the hospital she asked to see a priest, although her family was not religious. After receiving the last rites from him, she slept for the first time in many days and when she awoke − she later told Meital Ofer − she felt that she was suffused with serenity.

Some time later, she was accepted into a convent of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church in the northern part of the country, where she lived for 10 years, during which she abandoned music. She changed her name from Yewubdar Gebru to Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Gebru. Thereafter, she returned to Addis Ababa, where she taught orphans and blind children, but also went back to playing and composing music.

The following years were the most productive in her life with respect to her music; many of the works on the ‘Ethiopiques’ disc and in the new book of sheet music were written at that time − some of them in order to raise money for the children.

In Emahoy’s music there is a clear encounter between classical and Ethiopian music, though she herself once told Hever and Dunietz that she is not aware of the Ethiopian influences in her work. In her view, she follows in the tradition of the composers she admires: Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart.

The special sound of Ethiopian music is evident mainly in her more personal works − i.e., those pieces dedicated to the memory of her mother, her father, her younger brother, who was killed in a road accident, and her older brother who was killed at the age of 18 ‏(when she was 13‏) during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. In these works there is a strong presence of the Ethiopian scale; Hever says that in her piano playing, it is possible to hear considerable influence of a traditional string instrument called the kraar.

“There’s something rhythmic there that’s very typical of plucking the kraar,” he says. “When pianists who aren’t deeply familiar with the kraar play Emahoy’s music, I hear the difference. Some of the important characteristics get lost.”

It sounds as though she is very influenced by the early ragtime and jazz pianists. Is she at all familiar with this music?

“It really does sound like that. I hear a resemblance between her and Memphis Slim, for example. But when I asked her she said, no, not at all. She says the only music that has influenced her is classical Western music. She isn’t interested in other things. Jazz is not serious music, in her view. She wants Chopin. But it could be that just as jazz grew out of an encounter between pentatonic African music and European music − the same thing happened with her. It’s not conscious. It simply happened in an organic way.”

Has she influenced the Ethiopian music of recent decades?

“I think she has. She hasn’t innovated musically, but sometimes influence isn’t measured by artistic innovation, but rather by the fact that the artist has become a model. That is, she has showed pianists, and especially female pianists, that it is possible to compose solely for the piano, and today there are many musicians who are doing this.”

‘Unresolved conflict’

During her most productive musical period, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, Emahoy issued records in Ethiopia and Germany, and also performed on stage from time to time. This was not easy for her. “I was a nun and therefore I didn’t want to perform in front of people, so my sister made sure there would be a curtain separating me from the audience,” wrote Emahoy about a benefit performance she once gave in the presence of the emperor. For this she composed and performed the piece “Ballad of the Spirits,” which is included in the new book.

According to Dunietz, “She has an unresolved conflict between the need to perform and express her music to people on the one hand, and on the other, her monastic, ascetic introvertedness.”

At the end of the 1960s, Emahoy and her mother came for a first visit to Jerusalem: She ended up remaining in the city for eight years, working as an interpreter for the Ethiopian Patriarchate there. She then returned to Ethiopia. But after her mother died, in 1984, she decided to return to Jerusalem and settle in the Ethiopian convent there. Thus began the last chapter in her life, which has continued for nearly 30 years.

When Dunietz and Volkov visited the monastery for the first time, about seven years ago, the piano was already in Emahoy’s room. The two musicians asked her if she had written down her compositions, and when she handed them some sheet music, Volkov sat down and began to play.

“I was very moved,” Dunietz recalls now. “She explained that she sees herself more as a composer than a performer, and also told us that all her life people did not appreciate her art. Especially the clergymen. They said: ‘What’s all this stuff you are inventing? You should play religious music.’ They did not understand that her music, too, is worship.”

At that initial encounter, Volkov and Dunietz asked Emahoy about the meter in her music; on her sheet music there were no time signatures and the notes were arranged freely.

“It’s not four beats to a measure, or even three. It’s something else,” says Dunietz. “When Ilan asked her what he was supposed to do with the meter, she said: ‘It depends on the day, on the mood, on the weather, on your feeling at that moment.’ What an enchanting perception of timing!”

Before Dunietz and Volkov took their leave of Emahoy, they wrote their phone number down in her notebook. Over the next five years, they did not hear from her. “We left with the feeling of, ‘Wow, we have to do something with this,’ but we were all busy with our own things. From time to time we’d say to each other that we had to see her, but somehow this evaporated. And then, on that morning two years ago, she phoned and said; ‘I need your help.’ She knows how to be dramatic... You can see this in the titles she gives to her works. ‘Homesickness,’ ‘Last Tears of the Deceased,’ ‘The Homeless Wanderer,’ ‘A Young Girl’s Complaint’ − there’s a lot of pain and sadness in Emahoy’s works, but they are presented in a very refined way. Her music never plunges to the depths of grief. It moves softly like the silver waves Emahoy remembers as a 6-year-old child on that sea voyage from Africa to Europe.”

“I hear reconciliation,” Hever explains. “It’s not depression, it’s melancholy. Like in life: Not everything works out, but the end it isn’t too bad. Emahoy says she is very satisfied with her life. She feels her decision to become a nun was the right one.”

When Volkov and Dunietz expressed their willingness to help Emahoy organize the sheet music of her compositions, they did not know how much work the project would entail. “She gave us four Air Ethiopia bags bursting with hundreds of pages. A total mess,” says Dunietz.

“It was impossible to know which page belonged to which composition and it was all written as a rough draft, they way a person writes notes for himself in a shorthand that only he understands. We sat with her several times so she could help us sort out the mess. Sometimes, in order to avoid this, she used the excuse that she was old and didn’t have the strength,” she laughs.

In the next phase, Dunietz contacted the directors of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, who joined the effort and financed the preparation of the book, which Dunietz and Volkov had initially thought to finance themselves. Musician Evgeny Oslon also came on board and did most of the notation work.

Dunietz: “He had to cross-reference three sources: a rather associative manuscript of melody alone, another manuscript with the harmony, but without meter, and the recorded works. In many cases, he had to use his ear and the advice I gave him was: When you get stuck, think what Schumann or Mendelssohn would have done. It’s correct for the book to speak in that language. From Emahoy’s perspective, that is the way it is.”

The launch evening was only the prelude to the real thing. The publication of the book will also be celebrated at the YMCA auditorium in Jerusalem on August 22 and 23 as part of the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival. During the performances, as Dunietz reported excitedly at the launch event, the choir of the Ethiopian convent in Jerusalem will participate, along with vocalists Ester Rada and Hiwot Mekonnen, pianist Omri Mor, Ethiopian instrumentalist Dajan and Dunietz with the Tel Aviv Soloists ensemble. It is to be hoped that Emahoy herself, who will turn 90 in December, will be able to come and listen to her music performed before a large audience. Who knows? If the spirit moves her and the state of her health allows, perhaps she will even ascend to the stage to perform.

Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Gebru. “Jazz is not serious music, in her view. She wants Chopin,” says Nadav Hever.Credit: Gali Tivon

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