I once read the artist Dan Clowes describe Chopin’s Nocturnes as “like listening to ice water”. That description has often resonated with regards to the sound of a solo piano, but never more so than when I’m listening to the Ethiopian pianist and composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (pictured), who turns 99 this year, and whose music has a pure, restorative quality unlike anything else I’ve ever come across.
Somewhere between classical, blues and church music, academic and yet entirely unconventional, the kind of sound that quenches a certain intangible thirst.
I first discovered Guèbrou’s work through a series of albums called Éthiopiques, a showcase for popular Ethiopian music from the 1960s and ’70s. Ethiopian jazz, or Ethio-jazz, features heavily on most of the 30 albums in the Éthiopiques back catalogue, from artists like the sax player Getatchew Mekuria, the Amharic singer Alemayehu Eshete (often referred to as the Ethiopian Elvis) and the musician and arranger credited as the father of Ethio-Jazz, Mulatu Astatke.
Ethio-jazz has an eerie, empyrean quality, its composition and instrumentation generally vastly different to anything in western music. One of the main markers of difference is the use of pentatonic (five-note) scales, such as the Tizita scale – the name of which literally translates to “nostalgia” or “longing”.
Electric guitars and tenor saxophones are most commonly used as lead instruments as opposed to traditional brass, which makes the notes feel more penetrating and acute. In many ways Ethio-jazz and American jazz are barely alike; although Mekuria’s music has been compared tenuously to the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, Mekuria claims to be unfamiliar with both.
Every note of Guèbrou’s compositions are rich with that pentatonic ‘nostalgic’ effect. Notes tumble up and down the keyboard conversationally, as if she’s trying to bestow some unnamed wisdom, making any banal day-to-day activity they might be soundtracking seem cinematic and imbued with meaning. She plays like it’s her true vocation.
However, a twist of fate in early life led her on a different path. Born in Addis Ababa to a wealthy family in 1923, she left to study the violin at a boarding school in Switzerland from the age of six. During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, three of her brothers were executed and the rest of her family were sent to a prison camp on the Italian island of Asinara. Once the war was over, determined to play music professionally, Guèbrou went to Egypt to continue her studies under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz. Finally, in her late teens, she was offered a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London. When the Ethiopian authorities denied her permission to accept her place there, she was distraught. After refusing to eat or drink for 12 days she absconded to a nearby monastery where she was later ordained as a nun (the name Emahoy means ‘female monk’).
Living in remote poverty with no access to any musical instruments, Guèbrou stopped composing until the 1950s when she returned to Addis Ababa. In the 1960s she relocated to Gondar Province, a former capital of the Ethiopian kingdom, and began studying the ancient musical traditions of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
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Guèbrou’s first record was released in 1967, and she donated the proceeds from it and all subsequent releases to a local orphanage. Through the emergence of Ethio-jazz and the aforementioned Éthiopiques albums, along with her music more recently being featured in various TV ads and film soundtracks, she has begun to reach a broader audience. The Chicago-based record label Mississippi Records has just reissued a selection of her recordings, comprised of three movements representing her past, present and future.
The first is composed for her family and those she lost during the war. The second represents her devotion to God and her commitment to the Church. The third movement is dedicated to the next generation, a selection of sonic love letters from the perspective of her enlightened 99 years. The closing track, Tenkou Why Feel Sorry, is delivered with a message in the liner notes from Guèbrou herself: “Why those tears in your eyes? Cheer up, for you are so young!”
Top 3 Ethio-jazz albums
1 Ethio Jazzby Mulatu Astatke
Modal scales, irresistible smoky melodies and danceable polyrhythmic beats make this a true classic from the man who invented the genre itself.
2 Getatchew Mekuria and His Saxophone by Getatchew Mekuria
Haunting and uplifting in equal measure, this album ties together like a musical storybook, Mekuria’s sax leading the narrative with lilting conviction.
3 Éthiopiques 1: Golden Years of Modern Ethiopian Music 1969-1975
The first in a series of 30 celebrating a spectrum of Ethiopian sounds, this compilation features a broad range of popular artists along with some who are literally unknown and uncredited. A perfect entry point.
Deb Grant is a radio host and Big Issue jazz critic
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