In 2017, the BBC broadcast a radio documentary entitled The Honky Tonk Nun. Its subject was a classically trained piano-playing nonagenarian denizen of the Debre Genet monastery in Jerusalem.
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou had come to global prominence a little over a decade earlier, when the French musicologist Francis Falceto released an album of her solo piano music in his critically acclaimed Éthiopiques series. The album, which contained 16 of Guèbrou’s own compositions recorded over four decades, appeared to induct her into the tradition of so-called Ethio-jazz, which Falceto had more or less single-handedly brought to western attention. But, in truth, her work is utterly sui generis.
As the American critic Ted Gioia has written, “There is no genre for funky Ethiopian nuns.” Her pieces can evoke, in the space of a couple of bars, Chopin or Debussy, the Mississippi Delta blues and the music of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Guèbrou, who has died at the age of 99, was born in Addis Ababa in 1923, into a wealthy and well-connected family. Her father, Kentiba Guèbrou, was a diplomat and intellectual.
At the age of six, Guèbrou and her sister were sent away to boarding school in Switzerland. They were the first Ethiopian girls ever to be sent abroad to be educated.
While there she learnt to play the piano and the violin and, as she put it, became “captivated by music” — specifically western classical music.
The Israeli pianist Maya Dunietz, a friend and collaborator of Guèbrou’s, has emphasised this aspect of the Ethiopian’s musical formation: “In her own eyes the composer sees herself as continuing the legacy of Beethoven and Schumann and Chopin and Brahms . . . And all the other things that sneak in there, they are just there because she tells the story of her life in the music.”
In the early 1930s, Guèbrou returned to Addis Ababa, where she began to give recitals and once performed for the emperor, Haile Selassie, at his palace.
But her burgeoning musical career was brought to an abrupt halt by the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935. In the chaos, three members of her family were killed. And then, in 1937, Guèbrou and the surviving members of the family were made prisoners of war by the Italians and interned on the island of Asinara, north of Sardinia.
After the defeat of Italy in east Africa in 1941, she was able to start studying music again. She moved to Cairo, where she studied with the Polish violinist Alexander Kantorowicz.
Later, in conversation with the BBC, Guèbrou recalled her Egyptian sojourn with fondness. “It was a very nice time,” she said. “I was practising five hours piano, four hours violin, every day . . . Beethoven, Chopin. Sometimes I was playing Schubert, Mozart. Strauss I liked very much.”
Guèbrou returned to Addis Ababa on grounds of ill health after two years and was later offered a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London. But, for reasons that would remain obscure for the rest of her life, she never made it to England.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “But that broke my music[al] life. I didn’t want to play any more. I was so upset.”
A religious epiphany followed. Guèbrou received holy communion from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church after a period of torment during which she had refused food. She then retreated to the Guishen Maryam monastery in a mountainous region several hundred miles north of Addis Ababa. She was ordained as a nun aged 21.
Guèbrou spent the next 10 years there, living, as she put it, like a “hermit”. “They told me the place was blessed by the blood of Jesus Christ,” she recalled. “So I didn’t want to walk with shoes on. I went 10 years [with] no shoes.” And save for the liturgical plainsong of the church, music was absent from her life, too.
But she eventually did return to the piano in the early 1960s, immersing herself in indigenous Ethiopian forms, with their distinctive five-note scales, which would leave their imprint on her own compositions.
Guèbrou recorded intermittently from the late 1960s until 1984, when she left Addis Ababa and moved to Jerusalem. It was there that she later met Dunietz. “I was just caught in the magic of her sound,” the latter remembered.
The two women worked together to bring more of Guèbrou’s music to a wider audience — even though she insisted that she “didn’t want to be famous really”.