Interview: Maya Dunietz on Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Guebrou

First published in The Herald on 24 December, 2014

Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Guebrou is a 91-year-old Ethiopian pianist, composer and nun. She writes slow, spacious waltzes that lilt to an impalpable beat in scales whose logic seems just out of reach. Her piano is a tinkly upright and there’s enormous grace in her delivery. Remote and intimate, refined and strangely simple, one listen and the music gets deep under your skin. Somehow it feels as though it’s always just been there.

These extraordinary pieces would probably still be unknown had it not been for the Ethiopiques albums released by French producer Francis Falceto in the late 1990s and 2000s. The series was pivotal in bringing Ethiopia’s vibrant 1960s jazz scene to global recognition – imagine the low-lit shuffle of Mulatu Astatke’s Yekermo Sew, later picked up by Jim Jarmusch for the soundtrack of his film Broken Flowers. But grouping the Ethiopiques artists too closely together would be a mistake. Emahoy’s music has strains of blues, folk and improvisation, but she has never seen herself as a jazz artist. Her lineage, she says, is Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann.

It’s fascinating that an artist who considers herself so much a part of the classical tradition didn’t publish her work for most of her life; until last year, Emahoy’s music was only available through recordings of her playing it. Now, thanks to pianist and improviser Maya Dunietz and her husband Ilan Volkov (principal guest conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra), Emahoy’s piano works are finally available in a printed volume for the first time.

The story goes back several years to when Dunietz and Volkov bought an Ethiopiques album – Number 21, devoted entirely to Emahoy’s solo piano music – and were enthralled by what they heard. In the sleeve notes they discovered that Emahoy lived down the road from them at Jerusalem’s Ethiopian Orthodox church. “The first time Ilan and I went to visit her, deep conversations about music and life started very quickly,” Dunietz recalls, sipping a beer before a concert with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra last month. “She has a tiny little room but there’s an upright piano in there, and we asked whether we could try playing her music. It blew her away, how we grasped it so quickly. There’s the Ethiopian side and the classical side. How they go together, with her special sense of timing and so on, isn’t something everyone can get.”

Born into a family of intellectuals in Addis Ababa in 1923, Emahoy was educated at a boarding school in Switzerland and it was there, aged six, that she first heard a pianist playing Beethoven. She cried for the beauty of it and wanted to give the pianist flowers. After studying with a Polish violinist in Cairo, Emahoy returned to Ethiopia aged 21 and lived among Addis’s high society. Photographs show an intense, beautiful woman of multiple talents: she sang, she painted (a bold self-portrait is included in the new book), she wrote poetry and piano music. When one of Emperor Haile Selassie’s sons offered to fund her through musical studies in the UK, the Emperor himself prevented it. Fancis Falceto suggests that “her dream was cruelly dashed, she sank into a deep depression and declined almost unto death. From then on, she had no other thought but to withdraw from the world and turn to religion.”

Emahoy became a nun but periodically emerged from the convent to make recordings. Mainly, says Dunietz, her playing was an intimate thing, “a form of expression between her and God. She never took composing to another level in terms of making it readable for other musicians.”

Six years after their initial meeting, Dunietz received a call from Emahoy asking whether she would help publish some of the piano music. “It’s some sort of paradox,” says Dunietz. “On the one hand, she’s a nun and is supposed to have an extremely modest approach to life and not publicise herself. On the other hand, she’s a true artist. She told me that people kept asking where to find the notes and she wanted to have something to give them. Maybe she came to the conclusion that there’s no contradiction between her religious life and the act of publishing this music.”

The process wasn’t simple. Emahoy handed Dunietz several Ethiopian Airlines plastic bags stuffed with manuscript pages, and it was up to Dunietz, Volkov and a small team of helpers to decipher them. The aim was to make the music readable but retain its ineffable spirit. The most challenging thing had to do with the flow of time, Dunietz explains. The waltzes aren’t necessarily in triple time: “I wasn’t sure whether to standardise it all for the sake of clarity or to transcribe in more detail the sense of shifting meter.” Another dilemma was about ornaments. “Her little melodic decorations are very vocal – they’re the essence of the music, really. But it seemed pedantic to write it all out.” Eventually Dunietz devised a rule of thumb: whenever she was stuck, she asked herself what Schumann or Chopin would do. She ended up including time signatures and ornaments. Emahoy was thrilled when she saw the finished product.

While creating the book the two women got to know each other well. Dunietz took her grandmother to meet Emahoy (“two aristocratic stateswomen, like a pair of queens holding court”). On another occasion she and Volkov took Emahoy to see the ocean. “It was the first time she had left the monastery in more than a decade and she loved it. She stood on the beach and just looked out to sea.”

To celebrate the publication of the book, Dunietz organised a concert in Jerusalem in which she played the newly published pieces. There was such demand for tickets that she added two more dates. After the performance, dozens of people wanted to shake Emahoy’s hand. “That touched her deeply,” says Dunietz. “It was a huge thing for her to realise how many people love her music. The patriarch from her church and important people from Jerusalem’s Ethiopian community came. It was the first time the two parts of her life connected publically.”

The story is by no means over. Emahoy now wants Dunietz to install Sibelius (music notation software) onto a computer so she can write new music more efficiently. And she has handed over a stash of magnetic tapes containing recordings that have never been released. Most of them are songs, recorded 50 or so years ago, with self-penned lyrics in Amharic, French and Italian. “I promised that I’ll do what she wants with them,” says Dunietz. “And that is to finally release them.” She has been discussing the project with Mississippi Records; watch this space.

Meanwhile, Glasgow’s Aye-Aye Books is currently the only bookshop in the world that stocks the new Emahoy volume (this thanks in no small part to the efforts of Alasdair Campbell, director of Glasgow’s Counterflows festival and a frequent collaborator with Dunietz and Volkov). It is a beautiful publication that offers loving insight into Emahoy’s life and work. What’s more, it’s a chance to wrap your own hands around this evocative, lilting music. After a first try, I can report that the experience does not disappoint.

Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Guebrou: Music for Piano is available at Aye-Aye Books, 350 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow