A musical evening with Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru

The Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival at the end of August dedicated a concert to the music of Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru, the Ethiopian born composer acclaimed as “one of Africa’s most important composers ever”. Ran HaCohen (PhD), our Middle East Correspondent, was at the event

Famous in Ethiopia, Emahoy, who has spent the last three decades in a small chamber in the Ethiopian monastery in the city of Jerusalem, is practically unknown in Israel, and what is described as her “discovery” adds an exotic flavor to her already highly unusual life story: Born in Addis Ababa 90 years ago as a relative of the Emperor’s spouse, Emahoy enjoyed European education in Switzerland – quite unique for an Ethiopian girl at that time – , studied music in Cairo, returned to Ethiopia, saw the light in Church, and in 1984 left Ethiopia for the Jerusalem monastery. A long life of music.

Emahoy herself honored the concert with her presence. It was held at the magnificent Jerusalem YMCA building; from its bell tower, a short piece of Emahoy’s music was played to the outside world just as the concert started. Inside, in the beautiful concert hall, there was something for everyone: one part was sacred music, the other secular. The concert started classically with two piano pieces, followed by a collection of traditional prayers sung and performed by the choir of the Ethiopian monastery. Emahoy’s “Mother Ethiopia” was sung by the leading Ethiopian-Israeli singer Hiwot Mekonnen, who is hardly known in Israel outside the Ethiopian community, later joined by Ester Rada, the Ethiopian-Israeli singer who is paving her way to fame both in Israel and abroad. There was a string orchestra – an old dream of Emahoy’s that came true – but there were also traditional Ethiopian instruments like kebero and masinko, adding an ethnic touch to Emahoy’s otherwise Western music. There was even buna (Ethiopian coffee ceremony) served outside.

An impressive two-volume album was produced and sold at the event. One volume contains the piano notes of a dozen of Emahoy’s compositions. The other includes several articles dealing with the composer and her work against the backdrop of the Christian-Ethiopian presence in Jerusalem. Musician Nadav Haber in his analysis even claims to find Ethiopian musical residues in the work of Emahoy, although she did not learn the traditional music in a formal way. In a rare and blessed multicultural gesture, the entire volume is trilingual – Hebrew, English and Amharic.

The two originally scheduled shows, as well as a third one added later, were all sold out. The audience was almost entirely non-Ethiopian. The Israeli press published in advance a couple of interesting articles on the “mysterious” Ethiopian musician; one of the concerts was broadcasted live on the radio. “A symbol for the Jerusalem we yearn for”, wrote the Festival’s artistic director, one which is “a shining example of harmony based on peace”.

Photo : Jerusalem Post

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