A ninety-year-old Ethiopian nun has been hailed as a musical genius after a concert pianist stumbled across her scribbled scores and decided to showcase them to the world.
Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam Guebru has spent almost her entire life shut away in a convent, rarely ever venturing outside the stone walls of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, where she lives.
But despite her cloistered existence, she is now on the brink of global stardom after Israeli classical musician Maya Dunietz heard a rare CD of her work, and was so impressed that she turned it into a book. Emahoy has spent the last 70 years penning a vast musical opus that has, until now, barely been heard outside the convent.
Emahoy began life as a member of the Ethiopian aristocracy in Addis Ababa with close ties to Emperor Haile Selassie.
Born with the name Yewubdar Guebrù on December 12 1923, she lived there until, at the age of six, she and her sister were sent to a Swiss boarding school where she got her first taste of classical music. By her late teens she had been offered a place at a prestigious music school in London. But, due to the turmoil that had spread across her homeland, she was denied to leave by the Ethiopian authorities.
In protest at her detention, she went on hunger strike until, nearing death, she turned to God and took her first Holy Communion. She gave up music and devoted herself to religion, moving to a remote monastery in northern Ethiopia where she spent the next ten years living barefoot in a mud and stone hut.
It was not until she rejoined her mother in Addis Ababa that she took up music again and soon recorded a handful of albums. In 1984, after the death of her mother, she moved to Jerusalem to take up residence at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church where she has remained ever since.
It was there that Dunietz tracked her down, sitting at her piano. After years of visits and silent Dunietz finally persuaded her to hand over her work to turn into a book.
The book begins with a foreword from Meytal Ofer, a regular visitor to Emahoy.
‘I enter a darkened room and catch my first glimpse of her, an elderly woman, not a wrinkle on her face, lying in bed,’ Ofer writes. ‘It is a modest room with a small window. In the room there is a bed, a piano, piles of musical scores and a picture of Haile Selassie and the Empress Menen hung above the papers. Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam is in her own world; she speaks slowly with an inner peace, her soothing voice caresses the listener and her infectious smile sneaks into the conversation every now and then […] ‘
Emahoy is said to have found her new fame somewhat overwhelming and has spent most of her time locked in the nunnery, refusing media requests.
Dunietz describes Emahoy’s work as ‘intimate, natural, honest and very feminine’. How lovely is it to listen to a nun playing piano?