I first heard of Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru from my nephew in California asking if I knew about an Ethiopian nun living in Israel. I was intrigued.
Something of a cult figure in music circles, she had been sequestered for the past 30 years in the Ethiopian convent in Jerusalem.
Her story reads like a movie script and the more I researched the more dramatic it became. Born in 1923 into an aristocratic family with close connections to Emperor Haile Selassie, she and her sister were the first Ethiopian girls ever sent to school in Switzerland. She was aged six. Everything was new and strange – the language, the weather, the food and the people.
It was here she heard her first piano concerto – a profound experience that altered her life. She began studying violin and taught herself piano, demonstrating a rare talent. Five years later, she returned home, but shortly afterward her entire family was taken prisoner by Benito Mussolini’s invading Italian army and exiled for almost four years. On her eventual return to Addis Ababa, there was little classical music tuition available, but she was thrilled to receive an invitation to study in London, an offer dependent on approval from the Ethiopian authorities. To her dismay they refused.
Gebru fell into a deep depression, refusing food until, close to death and in the hospital, she requested holy communion. Four priests came to her and performed the ceremony. This was the second major turning point in her life. She embraced religion with a passion, was ordained as a nun and entered a convent where, for 10 years, she lived in a primitive mud hut, walking everywhere barefoot.
The death of the bishop in the area where the convent was located prompted a return to Addis Ababa where her musical career blossomed. She produced several albums, vowing to use her talent to help disadvantaged children through a foundation set up for this purpose by her niece. This led to a great deal of media attention as word spread about her singular contribution to the world of music.
In the late ’60s she and her mother visited Jerusalem. She loved the city and, speaking German, English, French and Italian fluently, worked as a translator for the Ethiopian patriarch. She eventually returned to Addis Ababa, but, on the death of her mother in 1984, fled to Jerusalem to escape the anti-religious Marxist government then in power in Ethiopia. She has remained in Jerusalem ever since.
In 2011, Maya Dunietz, an Israeli musician who had met Gebru briefly six years earlier, received a phone call from her. “I need your help – I am getting old and want my music to be published.” She handed over crumpled Air Ethiopia bags crammed with handwritten pages.
Dunietz spent two years diligently translating Gebru’s unique musical language into conventional notation, until in 2013 it was published in time for her 90th birthday.
To coincide with this, her life story was beautifully written by Meytal Ofer. “As Tsegue-Mariam had never left the convent for 16 years I invited her to visit my family who live by the sea. It was a privilege to share her joy on seeing the ocean after so long and her delight in the simple pleasure of eating an ice cream.”
The Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival organized a celebration concert where for the first time she heard her work performed in public by others. Birthday tributes poured in from all over the world for this diminutive figure who has enriched the lives of so many.
Having extensively researched this story, I could not finish it without at least attempting to meet her.
I was concerned how to do this as I understood she received few visitors nowadays and I was reluctant to intrude on her privacy. Last month, however, I made my way to the Kidane Meheret Church, a rotunda of traditional Ethiopian design surrounded by a small courtyard located on Ethiopia Street, near Jaffa Road in Jerusalem.
On entering the compound I found myself immediately in another world far from the downtown hustle and bustle. Men and women, mostly wearing long robes, sat or stood facing the church where a service was taking place. Some were in deep contemplation, others praying. There was a tangible atmosphere of calm and spirituality.
When I mentioned to a nun my interest in Gebru, she said, “Why don’t you speak to her, that is her room over there” – just meters away from where we stood.
I could not refuse such an invitation, so crossed a courtyard with doors set around the perimeter and entered a tiny cell where the legendary composer sat quietly in a wheelchair, surrounded by her belongings, including, of course, a piano. She looked up as I entered, her welcoming smile illuminating the room.
It is difficult to express my feelings at coming face to face with someone about whom I knew so much but had never met. I felt like a teenage fan meeting her favorite movie star. We began to talk. She speaks perfect English and is as mentally alert as a 19-year-old.
She asked if I liked music, and when I replied that I am studying singing her face lit up. “You must come and sing for me,” she said.
I returned two days later with my music and somewhat hesitatingly embarked upon an aria by Dvorak.
I explained how much I loved singing and didn’t particularly feel the need to perform. At this she reprimanded me gently, saying that what I possessed was a wonderful gift from God which carried an obligation to share it with others.
She said that she had written some vocal pieces, and suggested that I choose one to perform (I hope in English or Hebrew rather than in Amharic!).
We spoke of many things. She told me a lot about her early life and that not a day passed without her creating compositions, most of which remain in her head, not yet committed to paper.
Her music is unlike anything I have heard before. Dunietz writes: “She has a magical touch on the piano creating her own musical language, classical but not grand.
It is intimate, natural, honest and feminine, delicate but profound.
Her compositions vividly reflect her life, telling stories of time and place,” but the unique sounds she creates can be heard as a fusion of classical, traditional Ethiopian holy and secular themes, and surprisingly echoes of blues.
Incidentally, one thing I never expected was her knowledge of hi-tech. She suggested I “cut a disc” of my singing for her – this to someone who still thinks of a gramophone as the medium for all things musical – and she advised me to contact her by mobile, using the latest free technology when calling from abroad.
Meeting Gebru was a rare privilege.
She fervently believes it is the hand of God that provides her with the ability, strength and dedication to achieve all that she has done.
Meytal Ofer, her biographer, wrote, “She is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met, spending hours in solitude working on her compositions. The disparity between the sparseness of her room and her spiritual richness reaches deep into my soul.”
I could not agree more.
Ruth Corman, who lives in both London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer. Her next book, Unexpected Israel, should be published soon. More stories are available on her blog, ruthcorman.wordpress.com.