Emhoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbrou was born as Yewubdar Gebru in Addis Ababa on December 12, 1923 to a wealthy family. At the age of six she and her sister, Senedu Guèbrou were sent to a boarding school in Switzerland, where Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam studied violin. In 1933, she returned to Ethiopia.
Her musical talent did not escape the attention of her family or of Emperor Haile Selassie. However, the country was invaded in 1936 by Italy, and Ethiopia’s leading families either left or were expelled. Emahoy and her family became prisoners of war and were sent by the Italians, to the prison camp on the Italian island of Asinara and later to Mercogliano near Naples. After the war Guèbrou studied under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz in Cairo. Kontorowicz and Guèbrou returned to Ethiopia where Kontorowicz was appointed as musical director of the band of the Imperial Body Guard. Guèbrou was employed as an administrative assistant.
Upon her return, however, her musical career began losing momentum. There were no classical musicians in Ethiopia at that time and certainly no female musicians. As a result, Emahoy Tsegue-Mariam felt a great sense of isolation which was soon alleviated by an unexpected and extremely welcome piece of news: she had received a grant to study at the prestigious music academy in London. The trip was dependent on the permission of the local authorities and this was unexpectedly refused. The refusal had a dramatic impact on her life; she sank into a deep depression and refused to eat for twelve days, drinking only coffee.
At the age of 21, she fled to the Guishen Mariam monastery in Wollo Province and became a nun. She was given a religious name, Tsegué-Maryam and ordained as a nun, with the title of Emahoy. She could not continue her music at the monastery as it was in the remote rural hinterland of Ethiopia, without running water or electricity. She no longer had access to the piano. Her living conditions at the Guishen Mariam monastery were so harsh she feel severely ill and had to return to her parents in Addis Ababa. There she resumed playing the piano and began writing pieces for piano, violin and organ.
In the 1960s she lived in Gondar Province and studied religious music of the 6th-century Saint Yared who is credited with inventing the sacred music tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. There she was moved by the plight of other young students studying the sacred music – they often had to beg for food and lodging. “Although I did not have money to give them, I was determined to use my music to help these and other young people to get an education”.
Her first record was released in 1967. The proceeds of this and subsequent releases went to help an orphanage.
In 1984 she fled to the Ethiopian Monastery of Jerusalem where she currently resides. She is 93 years old.
- Book: Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Jerusalem Season of Cultures: