A Quiet Genius: Remembering Ethiopian Pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

by Joseph Omoniyi
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Ethiopian pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, who passed away at the age of 99, left behind a legacy that continues to captivate music enthusiasts worldwide. Despite her classical training, she found her place in the jazz genre, a testament to her unique musical journey. Guèbrou’s life was marked by contradictions, living as both a classically trained musician and a devout ascetic in a Jerusalem convent.

Born into an upper-class family in Addis Ababa in 1923, Guèbrou’s early life was steeped in western classical music. Her training extended beyond the piano to include the violin, showcasing her exceptional musical talent. However, her life took a tumultuous turn during Ethiopia’s political upheavals. She and her family endured the Italian occupation in the 1930s and later, the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie and a military junta, which prompted her move to Jerusalem in the 1980s, where she remained until her passing.

Guèbrou’s musical style is often described as syncretic, drawing from a diverse range of musical influences, particularly from western and jazz traditions. Her gender and choice of instrument, the piano, were uncommon in Ethiopian music, where women typically sang or danced. Despite this, she embraced the tonal range of the piano, showcasing her virtuosity through long improvisations and free adoption of musical styles.

While Guèbrou recorded over 100 tracks, footage of her public performances is rare, leaving behind a legacy shrouded in mystery and intrigue. Her music, however, speaks volumes, resonating with listeners through its emotional depth and cultural richness. Songs like “Homesickness,” a rendition of Ethiopia’s famous “Tezeta,” reflect her ability to convey deep emotions and nostalgia through her music.

Guèbrou’s life and music embody a profound artistic and spiritual unity, transcending borders and time. Her legacy continues to inspire musicians and listeners alike, reminding us of the power of music to transcend boundaries and touch the soul.

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