Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou
Éthiopiques 21: Ethiopia Song: Piano Solo
Buda Musique CD

Francis Falceto’s marvelous collection of Ethiopian music continues to grow and expand in unexpected ways. Like the excellent Alému Aga disk Harp of King David, volume 21 of the series is something of an anomaly, collecting records from disks of piano music by Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, originally released over a thirty year period beginning in 1963.

Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou was born in 1923, into an illustrious Ethiopian family. Her father, known as the Kèntiba Guèbrou, was a prominent Ethiopian educator and intellectual who gave his daughter an education in a Swiss boarding school, where she began studying piano and violin. These studies continued when her family returned to Ethiopia. In 1948 Guèbrou, disenchanted by the world of the Imperial court, joined a nunnery and later began teaching at an orphanage in Addis Ababa, at which point she took up music again, composing and performing music to financially support the orphanage. She lives today in an Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem – having forged a very different kind of musical life.

Guèbrou’s performances recall at times a stuttering Bud Powell, or percussive navigations of Ravel and Debussy’s piano music. The effect is charming, though sometimes oppressively colonial sounding, like someone trying to play their way out of a trap, the trap in this case being a piano. Falceto shrewdly observes that this is a “truly Ethiopian” music that is at the same time “absolutely atypical in the country’s musical culture”. Melodic shadows of the pentatonic pop sound of the other Éthiopiques volumes loom everywhere. It’s happy/sad music, nostalgia piled upon nostalgia, but possessing a dignity all of its own.

Originally published in The Wire, 2007.

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