Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru – Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru (2016)
Somewhere during the waning days of 2015, Eric Isaacson and I found ourselves chatting via email. Over the previous decade, his label Mississippi Records had become tangled in my heart. I had amassed roughly a hundred of its releases – each soaking my ears in ecstatic heights of sound, while equally furthering an understanding of my place in the world.
Mississippi might be better understood as a social position, rather than a record label. Drawing on the ethos of Punk, it moves beyond the basic signifiers of sound, culture, and time – presenting an astoundingly diverse image of the world’s musics through the lens of equity. Its discography is a snapshot into who we are, where we’ve been, and what we aught to be. It has elevated lost careers and supported artists who would otherwise have struggled to find a home – issuing incredible music with love and care it deserves – very often rescuing it from total neglect. Though not always apparent in the final result, its efforts were an important seed for how I came to see the potential and reach of a project like The Hum.
During our correspondence, Eric mentioned that he was making headway on a project with Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru – an attempt to bring more of her remarkable music to light. It was incredibly exciting news. In addition to being one of my favorite composers of all time, her work was astoundingly difficult to track down. Mississippi’s reissue of her 1960’s release Spielt Eigene Kompositionen, is among the most treasured in my collection – the only one of her albums that I had been able to find.
Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru is one of the most important, singular, and neglected musical voices of the Twentieth Century. In truth, it’s a wonder that we know her name at all. Like so many women, she had the cards stacked against her from the start. Guèbru was born into privilege – within the upper echelons of Ethiopian society, in 1923. Her musical talent was quick to manifest. Recognizing it, her parents sent her to study violin in Switzerland at the age of six. In 1933 she returned home. Following the occupation of Ethiopia by Benito Mussolini’s Italian forces in 1936, she was imprisoned with her family for the duration of the Second World War. Once her freedom was regained, she departed for Cairo to continue her musical studies. Her arrival home, a few short years later, was shrouded in disappointment and defeat. The consequences of which still ripple through her life.
There are conflicting accounts. When Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru’s returned to Ethiopia, it seems that her musical ambitions were thwarted from the highest levels of society – most probably because she was a woman. As a result, and perhaps in rebellion, in 1948 she withdrew from the world and entered monastic life – becoming ordained as a nun. Her love for music immovable, she has spent nearly every day, for more than half a century, behind the keyboard. The result of that effort is one the most unique and beautiful bodies of composition, that the world has ever known.
I doubt Guèbru expected her music to be heard. It’s a private practice. The results are more meditations than songs – the piano as a voice for religious belief – part of a long line of similarly conceived music, stemming from mystical musical minds like Hildegard of Bingen – transcendence grown from the devotions of everyday life.
During the 1960’s, the composer began to study Ethiopia’s ancient sacred music. Witnessing the economic plight of many young students dedicating themselves to the same subject, but with no money to help them, she embarked on recording her first album as an act of charity – to assist those attempting to preserve the long cultural history to which she belonged. The result was Spielt Eigene Kompositionen – one of the most beautiful albums of all time – a masterwork in simplicity and the distillation of melody – steeped in the many layers and values of altruism. Over the course of the next decade, she was encouraged to record a number of releases – some also issued in Germany, others in her homeland. All are profoundly rare. Mississippi’s newest release, draws its material from these – specifically Der Sang Des Meeres and The Hymn Of Jerusalem. Though its contents were previously made available Éthiopiques 21, this is the first time they have emerged on vinyl since their original release.
I spent a year anxiously waiting for Mississippi’s efforts to emerge. The first among them – the self-titled compilation Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru, issued in December, is a welcome delight. The album picks up where its predecessor left off – its equal as one of the most beautiful records of all time. It fills the silences with sparse melodies for unaccompanied piano, imbued with a beauty, the likes of which, without her, could have never been. They swell from their creator’s rare sensitivity and profound depths – somber, meditative, meandering, introspective, and playful at once. Nibbling at the sides of Ellington as much as Erik Satie. It is simply beautiful. Entirely singular, yet locked in conversations that span cultures and time – defying any need for words. It rests within nearly a century of Guèbru’s astounding efforts – and flutters up to a higher plane. It is unquestionably one of the most important releases of 2016 – joining Mississippi’s growing legacy of remarkable sounds. Pick it up while you can from a record store near you, and check out a few samplings below.
Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru – Ballad of Spirits
Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru – Mother’s Love
Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru – Song of the Sea