First published in the Guardian on 17 April, 2017
I’m no great singer, but Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou only really trusted me after I had sung to her. “Something from your country,” she instructed, so there I found myself: in the tiny bedroom of this 93-year-old Ethiopian composer-pianist-nun at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, croaking my way through the verses of a Robert Burns song.
I was there to make a documentary about Emahoy, and given she does not agree to most interviews I felt I should do what I was told. The room was cramped and sweltering. A small bed, an upright piano draped in Ethiopian flags, stacks of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, a jumble of hand-written manuscripts. On the walls were portraits of Emperor Haile Selassie — Emahoy knew him in the 1930s — and her own paintings of religious icons. The door was propped open and in from the courtyard came smells of Ethiopian stews and sounds of monks going about their daily chanting.
Emahoy is fluent in seven languages, but when I finished the Burns song (Ae Fond Kiss) she admitted the old Scots lyrics had been tricky to decipher. I gave her a potted translation — lovers meet, lovers part, lovers feel brokenhearted — and she gripped my arm and fixed me with one of her deep stares. “We can’t always choose what life brings,” she said. “But we can choose how to respond.” If anyone is qualified to dish out such wisdoms, it’s a woman whose choices were determined by religious self exile, maverick gender struggle and Ethiopia’s dramatic 20th century political history — and who became a singular artist in the process.
Most people familiar with Emahoy’s music come across it via her solo piano album released in 2006 as part of the Ethiopiques collection. That series branded her poised, bluesy, freewheeling waltzes together with the Ethio-jazz that emerged out of Addis Ababa in the 1960s — and although she smiles fondly at the mention of fellow Ethiopiques musicians like Mulatu Astatke and Alemayehu Eshete, she insists she’s not a jazz artist herself. Her training is purely Western classical; her inspiration comes from the ancient modal chants of the Orthodox church. It’s a unique fusion and it sounds like nothing else.
Emahoy was born in 1923 and grew up in one of the country’s most privileged families. She and her sister were the first girls to be sent abroad for education — she remembers travelling by train, aged 6, from the highlands of Addis to the port of Djibouti then onwards by boat to Marseille en route for a Swiss boarding school. That’s where she first encountered Western classical music. She took piano and violin lessons and turned out to be a special talent. In the 1930s she returned to Addis: portraits from this period show a gorgeous young woman with a wry smile and bold fashion. She went to high society parties and sang for Haile Selassie. She had a car and raced a horse-and-trap around the city. She was a feminist: first woman to work for the Ethiopian civil service, first to sing in an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, first to work as a translator for the Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem. “Even as a teenager I was always asking, ‘what is the difference between boys and girls?’” she told me. “We are equal!”
That life was brutally disrupted when Mussolini, eye on a colony, invaded Ethiopia in 1936 and three members of Emahoy’s family were killed. She was evacuated to Europe but she wasn’t phased in her determination to become a musician and several years later she found her way to Cairo to study with the esteemed Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz. She practiced for nine hours a day and remembers it as a happy time, but the Egyptian heat got to her and she was sent home to recover in the high-altitude temperate climate of the Ethiopian capital.
Emahoy told me all this from her bed last summer, intent on communicating the details with precision and clarity. At the end of each day’s interview she insisted on listening back to make sure she had articulately her thoughts just how she wanted. She is fierce, alert, giggly, excellent company. She quizzed my producer and me about global politics: what did we make of the policies of Hilary Clinton and Angela Merkel? (She herself quite likes Merkel; she does not like Trump.)
When we arrived at the next part of her story, something didn’t add up. After her time in Cairo, 23-year-old Emahoy set her sights on London and was offered a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. But for reasons that she couldn’t or wouldn’t disclose, she was refused permission to go. Whether it was a bureaucratic glitch or something closer to the lyrics of my Burns song, we will probably never know. The disappointment made her give up classical piano and turn to god. “It was His willing,” is all she would say when I asked what had prevented her from pursuing her studies. “We can choose how to respond.”
Emahoy never rekindled her nascent career as a classical concert pianist; instead she invented her own musical language. After becoming a nun, she spent a decade living barefoot in a hilltop monastery in northern Ethiopia, and when she eventually returned to music she wrote her own compositions, now infused with the classical training of her youth and the pentatonic chants she was singing in the church. There’s a stunning timelessness to it: the ornaments are virtuosic and the chords lilt like a Chopin waltz — almost, but not quite. With Emahoy, nothing is regular. No fixed metre, no pulse that can be set in notation, no strict adherence to any one scale system. Her melodies flit between traditions; they float on their own axis.
I was lucky enough to have been introduced to Emahoy by Maya Dunietz — an Israeli musician who helped Emahoy publish her work for the first time. The resulting volume contains 12 pieces, but there are dozens of her compositions yet to publish and dozens more Emahoy has yet to complete. As well as my singing ordeal, I was put through a sight-reading test in that tiny bedroom in Jerusalem, having to prove my worth to Emahoy by picking my way through one her latests compositions. “No pressure,” my producer whispered, helpfully. Before we left, Emahoy fixed me with that stare again. She told me to go through life fighting for equality. She said she’s working on another album. Even from her bed, she’s still choosing how to respond.
The Honky Tonk Nun will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 18 April at 1130am