The Honky-Tonk Nun of Ethiopia

In a music business that assigns every artist a category, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou—soon to celebrate her 98th birthday—has operated beyond all labels

The music business loves to apply labels to everything. Each artist and album is assigned a genre category—in fact, you can’t find a single musician who escapes this pigeonholing. It’s even a part of the Wikipedia template: each musician’s bio comes with an assigned genre, and there are no exceptions. Even worse, if an artist somehow managed to operate outside these boundaries, the cost would be enormous.

What radio station would consider playing a record that didn’t fit into its format (typically even more tightly defined than genre categories)? Reviews and bookings would suffer too. Without a category, you would float adrift with no place to anchor, no address to call home.

Yet every once in a while, an artist emerges who poses a challenge to the system. They don’t fit easily into any bucket. Sometimes they seem to demand a category of their own.

The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and contemporary culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to support my work is by taking out a paid subscription.

I imagine that’s how Ornette Coleman sounded to music fans when they first heard his saxophone playing in 1950s R&B bands touring the Southwest. He was playing avant-garde horn phrases, but with elements of gutbucket and funk and soul combined in hitherto unknown ways. Even within the context of experimental music, Coleman was a more dangerous and volatile experiment.

Eventually Ornette Coleman got assigned a category (free jazz), but it took some time. And the same is true of other musicians who have violated the genre norms of the business—for example, Joseph Spence or Captain Beefheart or Yma Sumac. They all got labeled sooner or later, even if only in absurd ways. (Sumac was “Hollywood’s Inca Princess.”) The system simply wouldn’t allow them to operate outside of its regime of assigned names.

But is any artist more resistant to pigeonholing than Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, who will soon be celebrating her 98th birthday? I call her the Honky-Tonk Nun of Ethiopia—but that’s just grasping at straws.

There is no genre for funky Ethiopian nuns. They don’t fit into any radio format. There’s no club in your town where you can hear them perform.  She is in a class by herself. That sounds like what every artist wants, but it’s a scary place to make a career in the music world.

So I’m hardly surprised that Guèbrou has had no career, at least no music career in any conventional sense of the term. She does have a vocation, however—that’s the exact word they use in the religious life. She lives in a tiny room at a hilltop monastery, with a piano nearby and religious icons that she painted herself. She rarely gives interviews and few have ever seen her perform her music. Yet she’s known, to a small clique of devoted fans, all over the world.

Most of her reputation rests on a compilation album released by the Éthiopiques label, run by Paris-based Buda Musique. This imprint specializes in Ethiopian music of the 1960s and 1970s, especially the spirited Ethio-Jazz that came out of Addis Ababa during that era. But Guèbrou’s solo piano music is something quite different—not for dancing or clubbing or partying.

But what exactly is it? There are snippets that sound like Chopin or Debussy or Bartok, but then there are bits that come straight out of the earliest Mississippi Delta or Texas blues tradition. Maybe it’s folk music—but I’m not sure which folks could claim ownership to this. I’m even more tempted to call this gospel or spiritual music—and it’s clear that Guèbrou sees this work as part of her religious calling. But I wouldn’t be surprised if others classified it as New Age or World Music, although those genre categories didn’t exist back when her main body of work was recorded.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Guèbrou had conventional music training, far more European than Ethiopian in its precepts. Raised by an affluent family in Addis Ababa, she was sent as a young girl to a boarding school in Switzerland, where she studied violin and piano. Later she undertook a more intense education under the guidance of Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz, practicing up to nine hours per day, according to her account. At age 23, Guèbrou won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, but turned it down.

Her simple explanation was: “It was His willing.” When pressed for more details, she added: “We can choose how to respond.”

She must have felt the call of a religious life even in those days. But Guèbrou had to give up much more than just music to make that move. As a young woman, she attended fancy parties, drove a car, worked as a translator (she’s fluent in seven languages), and espoused a worldview that can only be described as feminist—she was the first woman to sing in an Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the first to work for the country’s civil service. She had dealings with all of the nation’s elites, all the way up to Emperor Haile Selassie, who allegedly helped her make her first record.

The earliest recordings of Guèbrou date back to 1963, but weren’t released until 1967, when she was approaching her mid-40s. By then she had already spent many years in the monastery, living barefoot in a hilltop retreat. Since the 1980s, she has resided at the Debre Genet monastery in Jerusalem—whose name literally translates as “Sanctuary of Paradise.” Here her music blends in with the chanting of monks and the other distinctive sounds of the neighborhood.

Here’s a video of her, made at age 89, playing in her monastery home.

We tend to think of musicians as wanderers and globe-trotters, but Guèbrou’s life defies all our stereotypical images. Pianist Maya Dunietz, who worked with Guèbrou on publishing her music, took her on a rare trip—not for a concert or autograph session, but simply to see the ocean. “It was the first time she had left the monastery in more than a decade,” Dunietz recalls, “and she loved it. She stood on the beach and just looked out to sea.”

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou has followed an unconventional path, yet I can hardly imagine a purer way of pursuing music—for the sheer joy of self-expression and in connection with the transcendent. For sure, there are more profitable paths, in terms of money, or adulation, or media write-ups. But all of those side benefits can also serve as distractions or dead-ends. The more you chase after them, the more you put at risk the authentic sources of your muse.

You don’t often hear the word muse anymore in music writing—but the two terms come from the same roots. I take seriously assertions from the ancients—Hesiod, Homer, and so many others—that artistry puts us in touch with a power that eludes our ability to control or even describe it. If that’s true, Guèbrou has followed the most authentic music vocation of them all, seeking out her muse daily, even if she has never won a Grammy or seen her name on the Billboard chart.

Perhaps that explains the most salient quality of her work. If I had to come up with a single word to describe it, I would call attention to its serenity. That’s a rarity in every genre, which despite their differences, almost always convey a sense of striving and forward motion. How many artists really capture a blissful attitude of peaceful centering in the act of creative expression? That’s the aspect that draws me again and again to the music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. While others seem to be chasing after that elusive something that musicians always seek, she sounds like she’s already arrived.