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Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Ethiopian nun and piano virtuoso, dies at 99


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Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, a classically educated musician who as soon as deserted music for a hermit-like life as nun in her native Ethiopia and later returned to the piano with a genre-defying mix of Western and Ethiopian influences, died March 26 at her convent in Jerusalem. She was 99.

Her niece, Hanna Kebbede, confirmed the demise however didn’t give a trigger.

The kinds explored by Sister Guèbrou (the title Emahoy is equal to “Sister” for a nun) had been so singular in sound and construction that music students usually puzzled over the principle supply of her inspiration — seamlessly mixing varieties resembling jazz, chamber music and rhythmic move from her homeland.

Sister Guèbrou didn’t supply a lot assist as a information. She not often gave interviews or performances, principally letting the music communicate for itself in 4 albums and numerous compilations because the Sixties. Her work was delivered to a bigger viewers in recent times on the soundtrack for the Oscar-nominated documentary “Time” (2020) a few two-decade saga for an inmate and his household; and as music on the Netflix race-and-prejudice drama “Passing” (2021).

Sister Guèbrou, in the meantime, spent lengthy stretches in solitude contained in the Ethiopian Monastery of Debre Genet, or Sanctuary of Paradise, in Jerusalem, the place she lived since 1984 in a single room adorned along with her paintings of icons and angels. There additionally had been portraits of former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, whom Sister Guèbrou as soon as sang for when she was a teen.

In her few particular feedback on her musical influences, she expressed admiration for the European classical canon together with Frédéric Chopin and Johann Strauss. But she stayed rooted within the five-note melodic runs widespread in Ethiopian music, whereas additionally exploring the flowing richness of Japanese Orthodox chants or the distinctly American sounds such jazz or the old-timey snap of ragtime.

The general impact was usually shiny and cascading however all the time reaching to bridge musical traditions. Sister Guèbrou stated her essential aspiration was to “reward God” along with her music, together with items resembling “The Jordan River Music” (1970).

“Simply inside the first 5 or 10 seconds of the tune, we’ve invocations of European modernism, of Ethiopian conventional music and of the hyperlinks between Ethiopian Orthodoxy and a broader Judeo-Christian custom,” stated Ilana Webster-Kogen, an ethnomusicologist on the College of London’s Faculty of Oriental and African Research.

“Getting all of that musical data inside about 5 seconds of listening implies that evaluating her to anybody else wouldn’t make sense,” she added.

There was a decade, nonetheless, when Sister Guèbrou performed nothing in any respect.

She was a rising younger expertise as a teen, learning for 2 years below Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz in Cairo after which was provided a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music. Sister Guèbrou by no means made clear what occurred subsequent. For some motive, she was blocked by Selassie’s authorities from touring to London.

She was devastated. For almost two weeks, she refused to eat. She ended up in a hospital in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Her household feared she was close to demise. Weak and ailing, Sister Guèbrou stated she slept for a whole day.

“After I get up, I had a peaceable thoughts,” she advised the BBC in 2017. “I used to be modified. And I didn’t look after something.”

She left music behind. At 19, she joined the Gishen Mariam monastery in Ethiopia’s northern highlands. For the following decade, she barely left the monastery grounds, the place she slept in a hut on a dried-mud mattress. She observed lots of the nuns and monks had been barefoot. She gave up sneakers as nicely.

She had already skilled enormous swings in her life. She was raised in privilege in a household that had deep connections within the Ethiopian royal courtroom, together with her father’s work in diplomatic and liaison roles. She and her sister, Senedu, attended a Swiss boarding college and soaked in Western music and artwork.

After Italian forces below Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Sister Guèbrou and her household had been positioned below home arrest and later despatched to POW camps in Italy for 2 years. Three of her brothers had been killed within the preventing. (She composed the 1963 piece, “The Ballad of the Spirit,” of their reminiscence.)

After a few decade on the monastery, she returned to Addis Ababa. At almost 30 years previous, she determined to see how her fingers felt again on the piano keys. The music flowed. Now, nonetheless, it was extra infused with the meditative sounds and chants from the monastery.

“I stated to myself, `I’ve nothing. I’ve music,’” she recalled. “I’ll attempt to do one thing with this music.”

She traveled to Germany within the Sixties to make her first recordings. The piano she used, the studio technician stated, was as soon as performed by Mozart. The gross sales from her 1967 album, “Spielt Eigene Kompositionen,” roughly “Performs Her Personal Compositions,” had been donated to Ethiopian charities.

In 1974, a coup toppled Selassie and ended Ethiopia’s monarchy. Anybody favored by the ousted royal regime, together with Sister Guèbrou and her household, had been now below suspicion and intently monitored. When Sister Guèbrou’s mom died in 1984, she moved completely to the monastery in Jerusalem, all the time seen in public within the flowing spiritual garb that lined her head.

Sister Guèbrou’s few performances included a July 2008 recital on the Jewish Group Middle in Washington, strengthening her ties to the world’s Ethiopian group. The Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Basis helps cowl the price of musical research for youngsters in Africa and the Washington area.

“We are able to’t all the time select what life brings,” she advised the BBC. “However we will select the right way to reply.”

Yewubdar Gebru was born Dec. 12, 1923, in Addis Ababa and acquired her first violin as a Christmas current. After coming back from boarding college, the extent of her musical expertise was clear. Even within the POW camps, she hunted for any instrument to play.

Her music research in Cairo — accepted by Selassie — ended when she developed well being issues blamed on Cairo’s summer time warmth. Again in Ethiopia, she practiced with the band of the Imperial Guard and acquired permission from Selassie to develop into a translator in Ethiopia’s overseas ministry, the primary girl to such a put up. She purchased herself a automotive and have become a standard sights zipping across the metropolis.

“At the same time as a teen I used to be all the time asking, ‘What’s the distinction between girls and boys?’” she as soon as stated. “We’re equal!”

She composed greater than 150 items for piano, organ, opera and chamber ensembles. A compilation of Sister Guèbrou’s work was launched in 2006, “Éthiopiques Quantity 21: Ethiopia Music,” and a few of her items had been featured on albums together with 2012’s “The Tough Information to the Music of Ethiopia.”

Within the 196os, her piece “Homesickness” grew to become a preferred instrumental model of the Ethiopian tune type referred to as tezeta, or nostalgia, about longing and remembrance. Sister Guèbrou’s piece was featured in 2019 advert for Amazon’s Echo merchandise. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Put up.)

Along with her niece Kebbede of Falls Church, Va., survivors embody a nephew, Daniel Assefa, of Alexandria, Va. Each are affiliated with the Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Basis.

Sister Guèbrou stated some nuns within the Jerusalem convent initially raised objections once they heard her observe on the piano, saying the music was a distraction from monastic life. Ultimately, the complaints stopped.

“You’ll be able to reward God with any instrument,” she stated. “It’s a classical music. It’s not a music for dancing or tune. They shouldn’t be towards it.”

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