By Maya Dunietz
I discovered Emahoy Tsegue Mariam Guebrou in 2005, when I was 24 years old, and she was 82.
My partner at the time, conductor Ilan Volkov, brought home the album Ethiopiques 21 (produced by Francis Falceto), dedicated to her piano music, and we were immediately enchanted by her sound.
I’ve never heard such music before; It had a new, unheard sense of time, and her piano playing is so delicate and deep.
Inside the liner notes by falsetto was an extensive biography recounting Emahoy’s amazing life story, mentioning that in the 80’s she had moved to live in a Jerusalem monastery. Amazed at this information, we decided to try and find her.
Our contact was saxophonist and educator Nadav Haber, who was friends with her. When he realized that Emahoy had no piano at the monastery, he had gotten in touch with her American relatives who kindly purchased for her of an upright piano, on which she played and composed daily, between 9am and 1pm.
So one Spring day, Ilan and I showed up at the Kidane Mehret church on Ethiopia St., Jerusalem. We knocked on the door of monastery’s piano room and asked Emahoy if we could come in.
Within a moment, we found ourselves in a deep, hours-long discussion about music, religion, society, the soul, and more, in a mix of English, German, and Italian. By the piano, we noticed a notebook by with freshly written notes. Ilan asked if we could try and play the composition.
We took turns sitting down to read from the notebook, and after playing some of her notes I felt a trust that was building between us. Before we left, I wrote my phone number for her on her notebook, just in case.
The next time I heard from Emahoy was two years later, when she called and asked me to come see her. When I arrived, she was waiting for me with three or four old Air Ethiopia plastic bags that contained all her manuscripts.
She handed me the bags, saying “Here is all my music, it’s all in a mess. People from all over the world knock on my door asking for my music scores for them to play. Could you help notate my music properly in a book so that others could play it?”
Emahoy also hoped to use the profits from such a book for the musical education of children in need.
I accepted the challenge and began arranging the scores and notating the first piece, and soon realised that this is too big a task to do on my own, so I turned to Naomi Fortis and Itai Mautner from JSOC who immediately understood the importance of such an effort, and gave their support to publish a music sheet book with12 piano pieces, another book with essays about Emahoy’s life and music, and a magical concert in Emahoy's honour in Jerusalem’s beautiful YMCA concert hall.
The concert was a very special event; after it ended, thousands of people were standing in line to see Emahoy, shake her hand, bow and thank her for the music she gave to our world. The father of the church was sitting right by her side, I think he was amazed to see the levels of admiration she received from all these people.
Decisive and uncompromising
During this process, Emahoy and I have met frequently and discussed her music, the compositions and the performance aspect of her compositions; In her manuscripts, she wrote only the motives, the essences of pieces, musical codes and keys for her own performance of the music, but there was no performance notation to help an external random pianist site read through it easily.
With Evgeny Oslon as the main notator - we started “Translating” her directions into a version that pianists from anywhere in the world could sit down and play an Emahoy piece.
Emahoy had a very accepting and peaceful manner but was also very strong and opinionated, and when it came to music, she was decisive and uncompromising. For example, she was very specific and strict about the performances of her pieces.
She complained that people use too much pedal playing her music, making the music too “mushy”, she would say that the softness should come from another place, not the pedal.
I am so blessed to have had the chance to learn this music, and witness her preform, and receive life-musical lessons from her.
I’ve learned so much from her absolute commitment to the music when she was playing or composing; her gentle, infinite attention given to every single note being played with the intention of every movement, going straight from the heart to the fingers.
My view on written music changed completely after diving into Emahoy’s liquid approach to time, she helped me to see how a melody is free to breath the right tempo of a particular day.
A tremendous inspiration, Emahoy had always followed her own path and dreams. Even at a time when women’s achievements were not usually acknowledged, her undeniable gift had won her international recognition, although she never push herself into centerstage.
Her modest disposition conflicted with her inner calling to spread her beautiful healing music in the world. she was in constant dialogue with the concept of performing and being a music player while maintaining a strict religious daily practice and a humble and modest way.
When I think about my friend and ‘adopted grandma’, I remember the simple sharing of experiences: how kind she was with my children every time we would go to visit, how curious she was to hear about people’s life and feelings.
Emahoy loved the sea, and I had the privilege of escorting her to the beach a few times. I will never forget the sheer happiness on her face as we approach the seashore.
The sound of the waves was a soothing joy to her ears. But most of all, I will remember the way she played the piano, so sensitive and gentle and deep, like she had tiny ears at the tips of her fingers.
The author Maya Dunietz, is a pianist and long-time friend of Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou. Emahoy entrusted her with her manuscripts