The Story of the Wind

How lovely to have some light shown on pianist/composer Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou by Kate Molleson in the Guardian: There’s both an essay and a radio documentary with Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou speaking in English.

Ethiopian music is a vast subject that I know comparatively little about. However, there does seem to be an agreement (from those that know much more than me) that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is absolutely unique.

My own experience must be fairly common. One day several years ago I was at Pete Rende’s house. Pete put on the 21st volume of Francis Falceto’s Éthiopiques series, my eyes widened in shock, and I ordered my own copy that night. (It turned out later that many Brooklyn jazz cats are hip to Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, but she was new to me.)

As far as I know, that CD is the only digital issue of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s music. It’s a must-own for those interested in the possibilities of the piano.

The first track, “The Homeless Wanderer,” is quite involved with something akin to a one-chord blues.

However, this seven-minute lead-in also might give the wrong impression about Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s music in general, for most of her compositions are comparatively complex harmonically.  (I accept the Guardian‘s headline, “The Honky-Tonk Nun,” only if it gets more clicks on Molleson’s work.)

“The Mad Man’s Laughter” is noticeably chromatic.

The reference that I hear is European piano music. Not exactly the biggest names like Liszt and Chopin, but rather turn-of-the-century drawing-room composers like Moszkowski and Chaminade. These two maintain a place in the repertoire today mostly with a handful of encores, but all of their music has high finish and a perfect understanding of the instrument. Both were also wonderful pianists. Sadly there are no recordings of Moszkowski, but Chaminade has to be heard to be believed.

One flaw with comparing Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou to Moszkowski and Chaminade is that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is a deeply spiritual artist. Her music has never been played for profit: Indeed, she has perpetually given all proceeds to the poorest of the poor.

Also, the rhythms and melodic phrasing from Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou are not European, for example the “free” (but actually precise) melodies over a habanera bass in “Homesickness.”

However, I stand by my comparison to Moszkowski and Chaminade because there is something so antique about the way Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou handles the piano. Even though the recordings on the CD are from 1963-1972, they somehow sound like a historical piano track from the 1920s .

Recently I heard Yolanda Mero’s 1926 disc of a once-popular encore by Vogrich.

I’m convinced that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is in this same family. The piano seems to just play itself, with immense technical skill allied with a reservoir of pre-20th century charm.

Even some of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s titles are like those one could find in a old anthology of intermediate-level European piano music tucked away in your grandmother’s piano bench. Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska’s “The Maiden’s Prayer” was a huge hit in about 1890: Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s (much more soulful) work is “A Young Girl’s Complaint.”

My casual speculations are perhaps veering into nonsense. Anyway, thanks again to Molleson for the recent Guardian pieces. It’s wonderful that Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou is still here (now in her mid-’90s) and still modeling a selfless, profound, and personal way to live. And that music!