Rhythm divine: the Ethiopian nun whose music enraptured the Holy Land
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem, The Guardian
August 19, 2013



Jersusalem's classical music lovers honour Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guebrù, 90, after a life devoted to God and the piano

From a small, spartan room in the courtyard of the Ethiopian church off a narrow street in Jerusalem, a 90-year-old musical genius is emerging into the spotlight.

For almost three decades, Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guebrù has been closeted at the church, devoting herself to her life's twin themes – faith and music. The Ethiopian nun, whose piano compositions have enthralled those who have stumbled across a handful of recordings in existence, has lived a simple life, rarely venturing beyond the monastery's gates.

But this month the nonagenarian's scribbled musical scores have been published as a book, ensuring the long-term survival of her music. And on Tuesday, the composer will hear her work played in concert for the first time, at three performances in Jerusalem. Guebrù may even play a little.

Her music has been acclaimed by critics and devotees. Maya Dunietz, a young Israeli musician who worked with Guebrù on the publication of her scores, says in her introduction to the book that the composer has "developed her own musical language".

"It is classical music, with a very special sense of time, space, scenery," Dunietz told the Guardian. "It's not grand; it's intimate, natural, honest and very feminine. She has a magical touch on the piano. It's delicate but deep. And all her compositions tell stories of time and place."

Guebrù's inspiration comes not only from her faith, but from her life: an extraordinary journey from an aristocratic family in Addis Ababa, with strong links to Emperor Haile Selassie, to a monastery in the historic centre of Jerusalem .

She was born Yewubdar Guebrù on December 12 1923 and lived in the Ethiopian capital until, aged six, she and her sister were sent to boarding school in Switzerland. In one of two seminal moments of her life, there she heard her first piano concert, and began to play and study music.

After her return to Addis Ababa, and a period of exile for her family followed by yet another return, Guebrù was awarded a scholarship to study music in London. But she was unexpectedly denied permission to leave by the Ethiopian authorities.

In the bleak days following this calamity, Guebrù refused food until, close to death, she requested holy communion. Embracing God was the second seminal moment of her life. She abandoned music to devote herself to prayer, and after several years joined a monastery in northern Ethiopia. She spent 10 years there, barefoot and living in a mud and stone hut.

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