THE HONKY TONK NUN
Born Yewubdar Gebru in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, her name meant ‘the most beautiful one’. Her family were a wealthy and upper-class, part of the Amhara clan. This is an ethnic speaking group from the Northern Highlands of the country, with their own language.
Her father, Kentiba Gebru Desta, had been western educated and was mayor of the historical city of Gondar. He was 78 when she was born.
Her mother was Kassaye Yelemtu, well-known in high society, who was closely related to one of Emperor Haile Selassi’s wives.
Yewubdar grew up with music around her, particularly of the Ethiopian choral tradition.
Aged 6, she was sent to a boarding school in Switzerland where she learned to play the violin.
She remembered going to a concert given by a blind musician. “It remained in my mind, in my heart…After that, I was captivated by music.”
She was a real loner at school (being younger than many of the other children), so she found solace in music. She taught herself to play piano.
It was in Switzerland that also she discovered her love of jazz music.
Years later, when she had finished school, Yewubdar came back to Ethiopia to become a civil servant, working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She was the first female civil servant in Ethiopia’s history.
She also had a part-time role as a singer for Emperor Haile Selassi.
Yewubdar was a socialite who enjoyed partying and wore the height of fashion.
In 1935, the second Ethiopian-Italian war broke out (the first was in 1896), which lasted until 1937. Italy was led by its dictator Benito Mussolini, and conquered Ethiopia – and Emperor Haile Selassi was exiled.
Along with her family, Yewubdar was arrested by the Italians and put in a prisoner-of-war camp on the Italian island of Asinara. Three of her brothers were executed.
From there they were moved to Mercogliano, near Naples.
After the Second World War, Yewubdar moved to Cairo to study under the great Polish / Jewish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz. She was schooled in the works of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann.
Although she loved her studies, she absolutely hated Cairo due to the oppressive heat.
Then she returned to Ethiopia, with Kontorowicz (and his wife), who had just been appointed Musical Director to the band of the Imperial Guard. She was employed as an administrative assistant. By now, she could speak 7 languages fluently.
Nevertheless, her music career floundered. Outside of the Emperor’s palace there was no classical music in the country, and certainly no women musicians.
It was at this time Yewubdar started composing. She also remembered playing some piano pieces for the restored Emperor Haile Selassi and once singing him an Italian ballad.
She was offered a place at the Royal Academy of Music in London but was forced to turn it down as the Ethiopian authorities refused to grant her permission to leave.
She was inconsolable and said, “That broke my music life. I didn’t want to play anymore.”
She was so furious that she went on hunger strike for 12 days, drinking only coffee. She was hospitalised and a priest gave her the last rites, but she didn’t die.
Instead, unexpectedly, she chose to become a nun. She was still only in her early twenties. It was a real shock to her family, who found her decision hard to accept.
She retired to a rural hilltop monastery called Guishen Mariam and took the title name ‘Emahoy’ ( the name for a female monk in Ethiopia) and the religious name ‘Tsegue-Maryam’. She stayed in the monastery for 10 years.
It was a basic life. The monastery had no electricity or running water. She went barefoot for all of this period and music was forbidden. She said, “No shoes, no music – just prayer.”
The harshness of life in the monastery ultimately proved too much and Emahoy fell seriously ill. Her parents persuaded her to leave the convent and return to them. They were now living in Addis Ababa.
And there, the call of music proved too much.
She began composing for the violin, piano and organ. Her first record was released in 1967. Her style of music changed from classical to being more blues based ‘with complex phrasing’.
In 1984, she was threatened with arrest by the Ethiopian communist and military dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, because of her religious beliefs. Her mother had just died leaving her with no remaining family ties so she fled to Jerusalem.
There, Emahoy returned to religious life, living in Debre Genet (Sanctuary of Paradise) Orthodox convent sited on Ethiopia Street. This time, she was allowed a piano in her cell.
She might have remained unknown in the West had it not been for French musicologist Francis Falceto. He was determined to introduce the largely-unknown Ethiopian music to new audiences and released some compilation albums, known as ‘Ethiopiques’.
Emahoy’s album is called ‘Ethiopique 21’, and includes the stunning composition ‘The Story of the Wind’, which is under 3 minutes long.
Even African music fans were stunned by this music. It was so different from anything else coming out of the continent. And Emahoy became an ‘overnight sensation’.
Three of her albums were released in the West, all to critical acclaim. They were, ‘The Homeless Wanderer’, ‘Homesickness’ and ‘Mother’s Love’. Some of the tunes from these LPs are currently used in television adverts.
Her compositions were a fusion of jazz, blues and classical music. The Guardian described it as, ‘a mixture of high and low art, sacred and profane, precise notation and free improvisation.’
Falceto found loads of tapes of her music that she had recorded herself in the 1960s and 1970s, which were piled high on shelves in her cell. She wanted to share it with other people but had no idea how to do so. Until he ‘discovered’ her, most of her music had never been heard by another human being.
Emahoy said, “I didn’t want fame, I just wanted music”.
It was rare for her to perform in public, although there were 3 tribute concerts to her on her 90th birthday.
She set up a foundation in her name to help children in need in Africa and also to encourage children in Washington DC to take up music.
In 2017, there was a BBC radio documentary about her life entitled ‘The Honky Tonk Nun’.
She also built up a close friendship with musician Maya Dunietz, who helped translate her scores into a book.
The nun wrote the soundtrack to the 2020 documentary film ‘Time’ (directed by Garrett Bradley), about a woman in New Orleans trying to get her husband out of prison.
Right up to her death, Emahoy practiced the piano every day. She admitted she had spent the whole of her life coming to terms with not being allowed to study in London and had always wondered, ‘What if’?
In 2022, aged 99, she wondered if she was the only person in the world to have had a parent who was alive in 1845 – her father.
Norah Jones was a big fan, calling ‘Ethiopique 21’ her favourite record. “The album is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard: part Duke Ellington, part modal scales, part the blues, part church music…It resonated in all those ways for me”.
When she died, The Guardian called her, “One of history’s most distinctive pianists”.
Her friend Maya Dunietz said, “Her music speaks in a highly spiritual dimension. The sound she brought to the world is modest, gentle, deep, serene, sorrowful, yet full of love and faith…”
She added, “When she played the piano it felt like she had tiny ears at the tips of her fingers – such a sensitive touch. It was a true miracle”.
Around the time of her death, a recording of her 1970s music was unearthed in Mississippi. It is believed there is a whole undiscovered body of her work out there, somewhere – over 100 ‘missing’ pieces.
It was also believed she was, prior to her death, the oldest nun in the world.
At her funeral, one of her own pianos was played.
RIP – Religious Influenced Pianist