May 28, 2019
Released On October 21, 2016
Released By Mississippi Records
A Cable-Nelson upright piano sat — mostly silent — in the corner of the living room of the house I grew up in in Norfolk. My parents bought it when they signed my sister up for piano lessons, but she wasn’t too keen on those. Outside of kids playing “Chopsticks” and “Heart & Soul,” the most action the instrument saw was carol accompaniment at the hand of holiday party guests.
I’m not sure how old I was, but I some point, I started poking at the thing — reproducing simple melodies, working out two- and three-note chords. I loved playing the low notes, which boomed and filled up that side of the room with fearsome sound. The high notes, on the other hand, always struck me as less exciting. Weaker. Vestigial, even. Who actually used those things? And for what? No player answers those questions as distinctively as nonagenarian Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, whose music I’ve gotten to know via a self-titled 2016 Mississippi Records reissue of her recordings.
Dexterous runs start way over on the right side of the keyboard and cascade melodically. I find following along to be a visual experience; when I hear Guèbrou, I see a waterfall. And it’s not just the tonal topography. In the same way that a river is made up of an unfathomable number of drops becoming one body of water, Guèbrou’s right hand produces tones so quickly that they blend together and descend as one continuous stream. Listen to “Song Of Abayi” with your eyes closed. It’s uncanny. And it all starts with those keys I thought were useless.
Guèbrou’s pacing is a big part of her distinctiveness, but it’s not just about being fast. She speeds up and slows down often and with great empathy — swaying in relation to tempo. (“Mother’s Love” is especially affecting in this sense.) I’ll often put on “dlp 1.1” from William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops when I’m bummed out. Its droning repetition can be tremendously soothing. Back and forth and back and forth. Everything is going to be OK. When I listen to Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, I come to the same conclusion.
I also feel like time stops in a comforting way. The frequency with which she stretches tempo makes it seem like she’s out of step with time in general. And when you scan Guèbrou’s life story, you find that removal has been a constant. The years she spent away from her native Ethiopia at a Swiss boarding school, where she studied violin and piano. Her exile from Ethiopia as a result of the mid-1930s Italo-Ethiopian War. Her temporary exile from music, which resulted from living in a hilltop monastery. It’s hard to imagine a recipe for a more deeply personal and self-sufficient connection to an instrument.
If you had to guess when these recordings were made, and you had nothing to go on but the recordings themselves, you’d be throwing darts at a pretty wide timeline. You hear elements of traditions that span centuries — particularly Western classical and the pentatonic scale used in Ethiopian Orthodox devotional music. Yet you hear execution that’s wholly unique, like a mutation that could have sprouted up at any point. Maybe that’s one of the reasons her music appeared in an episode of Forever — a show in which Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph are trapped in a suburban afterlife in which time stands still.
I recently went for a run with Rand Steiger’s 2019 album Coalescence Cycle, Vol. 1. (If memory serves, it was a tweet from Off Your Radar colleague Jeremy Shatan that led me in Steiger’s direction.) It’s a fascinating collection of acoustic and electronic sounds. Sparseness is the rule, and lengthy solo passages hold instruments and their capabilities up to the light for as extensive an examination as you’ll find. I loved “Light On Water,” which features flute and piano and makes inventive use of the latter’s upper register. Tiny notes are clustered together, like sparks swirling around a campfire, or like the people huddling around it for warmth.
It got me thinking about how strong Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou sounds in comparison. “We can’t always choose what life brings, but we can choose how to respond,” she said in a recent Guardian interview. Guèbrou has responded to a tumultuous life with singular artistry. And she forever changed the way I think about the piano.
Ecumenical prioress displaced by man-made conflict. Faithful musician educated by her profound experience & vision.
For a writer, sometimes I find it so damn hard to say what I’m feeling. Our language misses out on specificity you see at times in other languages. The French coined a term for the inexplicable desire of the heart to jump off a cliff that conflicts with the desire of the mind to stay alive: l’appel du vide. A cheating spouse caught in flagrante delicto might experience erklärungsnot, the German word for having no explanation. Certain feelings, thoughts, sights need to be translated at times to make the most sense, and listening to Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s self-titled album makes it clear that sometimes, for her, the best language wasn’t spoken. Simple, clean melodies trip along in most songs, notes often played singularly or alongside just one or two others. The crisp sweetness of the notes can be savored that way, left humming in the air without the complication of crashing chords or hurried pacing. Truly, Guèbrou is nothing if not self-aware, playing in a deliberate manner that speaks not to a piano prowess or showboating attitude, but more to just being clearly in the moment when she composed these tracks. Displaying traditional Ethiopian style with longer pauses between notes, Guèbrou’s music gives the sense of her packing up her piano to carry along everywhere she goes, stopping to admire the beauty of a horse in “Golgotha,” the wind cooling down the ivories as the fading sun warmed her face in “Evening Breeze,” a dark room holding the notes of “Homesickness” rather than a sleeping form under the covers of her bed. There are stories in all these of memories she must have had, things she must have seen. Who is Tenkou and why does he feel sorry? What colors and scents are in the “Garden Of Gethesemanie” that so inspired such a delicate but strong melody? The tracks of Guèbrou’s self-titled album are an unwritten chapter book of her life, the details translated into a language perhaps more expressive for her than words: the piano.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
“Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (born December 12, 1923) is an Ethiopian nun known for her piano playing and compositions.” Doug, our editor, wasn’t kidding when he said this next set of issues is diverse. The opening sentence of her Wikipedia article is about as culturally diverse as it gets, at least for this space. The music within is diverse, too, especially given the last couple of issues. It’s been a bit of a journey, is what I’m saying. Anyhow, Emahoy’s playing and compositions are beautiful. A lot of it feels like it’s (way) over my head. I don’t know that I fully understand it, but that doesn’t necessarily inhibit my ability to enjoy her work. It’s her backstory, however, that truly captured my attention. Really, it’s the only thing that could overshadow these songs. I found a Guardian piece on her and much of it stunned me. Here are just a few things I learned. She’s fluent in seven languages. She likes Angela Merkel but does not like Donald Trump. And she’s a woman of several firsts: “the first woman to work for the Ethiopian civil service, the first to sing in an Ethiopian Orthodox church, [and] the first to work as a translator for the Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem.” After reading the story and hearing these songs, you get the sense that nothing can bring her down. After all she’s been through — multiple lifetimes’ worth of struggle by my estimation — she’s still got a smile on her face in the article’s picture. She was willing to sit down and open up about her experiences, good and bad. It’s inspiring stuff, and we need some of that right now.
Scientists are studying the application of biometric data to musical arrangement in such a way as to allow autistic people to be more aware of their own emotional and cognitive state. It’s pretty remarkable to hear the sound of a heartbeat and the rhythms of the body’s various functions represented as soft, ambient melodies when you’re calm and slowly rising crescendos when your stress becomes elevated. The idea is that this awareness can help a person learn the control or at least predict when coping mechanisms or behavioral strategies need to be employed. As I was listening to the sound of one man’s resting state, it reminded me a lot of the fluttering, lightweight brilliance of the work of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. As you listen to the melodies on the 2016 collection of her work, it’s hard not to notice that short jaunts up and down the piano keys seem to stumble in and out of gitty hopefulness and quiet reflection. Perhaps with instrumental music, the lack of vocals makes it easier to focus on the emotions which simply must be evoked by the music on its own. As with any artist, you have the constraints of your medium within which to grow and express yourself. On each of these beautiful songs, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou tells stories of a difficult life lived despite its hardships, often without the aid of the ability to make music. It was later in her life which she found her way back to the piano and began to find ways to express an impossible hopefulness and optimism. Listening to it now, one gets the sense that it’s larger and more complex than it appears, often falling into complex rhythms which meander in and out of time very deliberately. There are many ways in which music can be a reflection of the way that we feel. Whether that’s the direct and definitive translation of our elevating biometry or the expression through keys and chords of the full range of human hardship — music such as this reminds us that we’re connected, alive and ultimately sharing an aim to find peace.
While her Ethiopian heritage & home shaped her life, it was her experiences abroad — Switzerland, Jerusalem, and even Italy — that gave it color & definition.
Music like this makes you wonder what the artist was going through. Of course, the absence of lyrics make us ponder, but for me it’s the raw emotion of the pieces that peak my curiosity. Emahoy is obviously a virtuoso, but what compelled her to write such haunting pieces like “Ballad Of The Spirits?” Was it her upbringing? Her circumstance in life? Her musical influences? Her choices? It’s probably a mixture of all those factors. Not that she meant for this to be the case, but an album such as this is a sample playground for hip hop producers. There are dozens of mini loops all throughout this compilation, and that’s just on a first listen! I’m sure the good folks over at Griselda records would have a field day with the dark twists and turns of the aforementioned “Ballad Of The Spirits,” or the smooth, yet intense textures of “Evening Breeze.” Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are much lighter moments like “Song Of Abayi,” and “Song Of The Sea” to lift your spirits. I just think that this project is one of the few OYR submissions that makes me want to take a deep dive into the artist’s past. Are there any published interviews? Did she dabble in any other artistic forms? Why am I only hearing about her this week? This album makes me feel small. It should make us all feel small, and neglectful, and a bit ignorant. There’s literally an entire world of music out there we’re not paying attention to. But hey, I guess that’s the point of this newsletter in the first place. Great submission.
Today did not start off well. I didn’t sleep very much, woke up sore like I’d been doing gymnastics in my sleep, and my neighbours decided that the holiday weekend meant they could start drinking and blasting their classic rock at an ungodly hour. By the time I remembered what day it was, and the fact that I hadn’t even listened to Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou yet, I was ready to write off the entire day. I’ve mentioned before that I rarely look up the artists I’m unfamiliar with before listening/writing, so I was completely unready for an album made up entirely of solo piano compositions. By the end of “Song Of The Sea,” I noticed some of the tension had begun to leech away and that I was no longer so angry at the day today had started out as. Each song seems to meld pretty seamlessly into the next in a way that reminds me of nothing so much as the way my husband tends to play every time we visit someone who owns a piano. He sees it, asks if they mind if he plays, then spends a few hours running through whatever music lives in his head at the moment. I didn’t know I needed this today until I heard it, and if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to play it again while I try to ignore the neighbours being too loud again (still).
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Age aside, Emahoy’s music seems to call back to where we came from & point to where we should go.
This music is incredibly beautiful, and I feel as though I’d be letting it down by trying to explain why, so I’ll probably err away from that approach. It’s not too often that I listen to instrumental music that immediately connects, but this album got me. The mixture of blues, classical, and jazz makes for a very eerie listen, as though the entire soundscape is dripped in greys and faded blues. Certain melodies reminded me of old folk tunes, which I suppose makes sense, since many old folk tunes are derived from old blues songs. It’s really a shame that more people aren’t aware of this album, but at the same time, it’s also okay, because we can keep it for ourselves — in that endless collection of beautiful music we celebrate that can’t quite poke its head above the surface. I truly am at a bit of a loss for words with this one, and I’m not even really certain why it connects with me so much. Maybe because it reminds me of the small southern black church I attended growing up — the old organ, and the red-carpeted floors. The sound of gospel music on Sunday morning. There was always something rustic and raw about the way that piano sounded. I’m always looking for music that connects me back to my roots — back to that small church in Lynchburg, VA — but sometimes, that music finds me. I think that if this feature exposed this music to one more appreciative ear, I would be satisfied.
Ethiopiques is one of those magical series that you encounter just when you need it. I remember driving through NYC late one night in 1998, probably heading to the hospital with our son, and hearing John Schaefer playing selections from Éthiopiques Volume 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale, 1969–1974, including the unforgettable Yèkèrmo Sèw. My wife and I were instantly struck by the off-kilter nature of the rhythms, the slightly off harmonies and the hypnotic melody, a perfect soundtrack for the radically unexpected nature of our lives at the time. A year later, in 1999, one of my best friends died and I inherited his copy of Ere Mela Mela by Mahmoud Ahmed, which he had bought in the ’80s — just one example of his adventurous listening that had done so much to guide my own. That same year, Ethiopiques reissued the album as Volume 7 in the series — are there really any coincidences? Then, in 2007, my colleague discovered the music of Alèmayèhu Eshèté on Volume 22 and it became a shared delight during a period of devilishly hard work as we devoted ourselves to moving the children’s cancer charity we ran to the next level. Volume 21, which I never heard before Davy suggested it, is a fairly fascinating collection of solo piano music, featuring those same odd harmonies that Astatke specializes in, if maybe with less melodic variety. Depending on your mood, you might find it slightly monotonous, but if it’s your introduction to Ethiopian jazz, you will likely be riveted. But my reaction may be influenced by the fact that I just haven’t needed to hear it yet — but I’m looking forward to finding out why Davy did!
Great instrumental music should move you in ways words can’t, evoking emotion that phrases and sentences can sometimes rob of their inherent sensibility. But even with that being stated, I still feel dumbfounded by what Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is saying in her music through only fingers and keys. I know a lot of talented piano players, ones who can translate emotion into musical notes like no others. I’m even well-versed in the power of carpal communication, with my father and maternal grandmother being Deaf and my mother being deeply involved in that community. So I get it — there’s communicatory power in your hands and fingers that can extend far past your vocal chords. But still… Emahoy just leaves me dumbfounded. Maybe it’s because I’m officiating a wedding this weekend, and deeply doubting everything I’ve written and mapped out thus far. Or maybe it’s because Emahoy’s life and experiences are so unique and so varied that it leaves me humbled, dwarfed by her non-verbal eloquence. I feel this way on “Mother’s Love” where she so gracefully underscores the silly, jovial side of parenting with the warmth and compassion. It instantly reminded me of watching my wife tickle my two-year-old on the floor before lifting her up into an enormous hug. “Ballad Of The Spirits,” on the other hand, had me feeling about the open nature of death and the afterlife, whichever form you believe (or don’t believe) in. Emahoy didn’t seem to skirt around anything, sprinkling in plenty of solemn and dour low notes, but those serve more as connective tissue to her hopeful melody, bridging the gap from thought to thought so as not to let you forget about grief and pain, but also not let you wallow in it. This was just the first two tracks of the album too, with the remaining nine offering just as much contemplation from her fingers and instrument, whether it be in the form of towering intricacy (“Golgotha“) or turbid musings (“Story Of The Wind“). By the end of it all, you’re just amazed at the endless possibilities Emahoy can conjure when she sits down at a piano. Every emotion is ready to be relayed through her hands, intertwining similar ones through nimble fills and uniting opposites with deeply stirring melodies. And it’s this thought that makes the emotion she does choose to explore that much more moving and inspiring.
Little Voice by Sara Bareilles
Chosen By Kira Grunenberg