Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou’s music had found its way onto my ipod and was seeping through the white noise of the London underground. The song was “Mother’s Love”, and it felt like being wrapped up in a warm duvet. I became obsessed by the song – the comforting waltz of the left hand, the cascading exuberance of the right – and was curious to learn more. This led me to the remarkable Mary Sutton, who herself tracked Emahoy down in Israel, and plans on bringing her music to a wider audience through the Emahoy Sheet Music Project.
Mary, who flies back out to Israel next month, talked to us about the emotion and meaning in Emahoy’s life-affirming music, as well as the scale of the task ahead.
Kit Records: Tell us about Emahoy.
Mary Sutton: Emahoy is a composer, pianist and nun, living in Jerusalem. She was trained in Western Classical music, and lived in Ethiopia, Switzerland, Italy, and Egypt before settling in Israel. She comes from an aristocratic family, but chose to devote herself to her religion and lead a life of poverty, rather than follow the traditional path of a noblewoman. As a nun, she was expected to give up music, but found a way to continue as a teacher, and started to release recordings of her music in the ’60s to raise money for various charitable causes. Her music and poetry deal with themes of religion and nature, displacement and devotion, loss and love.
KR: What do you hope to achieve with the Emahoy project?
MS: Before I tried playing Emahoy’s music, listening to it felt very ephemeral, etherial, hard to grasp but easily captivating. She seemed like a distant, mythical heroine of another time and place. When I started to study the music and learn about her history, it grounded the music, brought it back to earth, but not as a captive, it retained its freedom throughout the process. It merely gave it a broader dominion over the world I live in. What I love about art is that people make it, not gods. It’s not magic. I could start to see the nuts and bolts of how she thinks, plays, puzzles over musical choices. I could empathise more deeply, emotionally, once I connected that her life is real, and that this music came out of it. Maybe other people get this just from a recording, which is great. With the Emahoy Sheet Music Project, I hope to offer a chance for people to also experience Emahoy’s music for as a performer or audience member, and be with the fact that she is human, we are all human.
KR: How did you find her??
MS: Through facebook, obviously! It was a tricky thing, to finally get hold of her. I had to stretch my idea of these kinds of things. I tried emailing her, she read the email, but the response came back blank because of a computer bug. I sent her a package addressed to an Ethiopian church, not knowing which one she is at. I started asking people in Israel who I barely knew to go find her for me. Eventually, my roommate’s friend from facebook had recently interviewed her, and he got me connected. We had some brief phone conversations, and she understood immediately that I was the one who had emailed her almost six months earlier. And the package I sent eventually made its way to her – it took a few months, but she wrote back immediately, and invited me to come work with her.
KR: Can you tell us what it was like to discover Emahoy’s music as a pianist?
MS: After playing 13 of Emahoy’s pieces, I began to recognize different aspects to her compositional voice. What they have in common is that their themes are personal, autobiographical, and carry much emotional weight. There are pieces like “Song of the Sea”, “Madman’s Laughter”, and “Last Tears of the Deceased”, where it is very easy to hear the influence of romantic-era classical piano. They are formed around melodic material with lots of chord changes that are expressed as arpeggios.
Then there is “Homeless Wanderer”, “Mother’s Love”, “Homesickness”, “Ballad of the Spirits”, and “Presentiment”. In these, right hand plays the melody while left hand plays an arhythmic waltz pattern throughout. The melodies are mostly pentatonic, though not exclusively, and may use augmented intervals as well. “Story of the Wind”, “Evening Breeze”, as well as “Presentiment” could be heard as highly vocally inspired, almost a folk song or a song without words. The melodies, although highly ornamented, are still singable, the pieces are short and the chords are catchy.
My personal favorite group of pieces is “Jordan River Song”, “Golgotha”, and “Garden of Gesthemanie”, because they balance the attributes mentioned above. They feel incredibly Ethiopian, but are also highly chromatic, and modulate in unexpected ways, in the style of the late Romantics. Both hands are equally involved in the melodic and harmonic dialogue, and the chord changes feel very visceral. Their forms are concise, yet don’t feel so tight as to lose the improvisatory stream-of-consciousness quality that is so hypnotising about her music.
KR: Did you expect this level of interest?
MS: Yes and no. At first, most people I interacted with in Portland knew about her, but that didn’t surprise me, because they are all nerds for this kind of thing. What is interesting is to see how people from Ethiopia react, or people who have no context. I sometimes play her music in sets of standard classical repertoire, at a gig of some sort, and people notice it, they come up to me all wide-eyed and smiles, and ask what music I was playing! This music was on the radio in Ethiopia, so people who grew up there are blown away, startled even, to suddenly be transported back in time.
“Maryam”, by Omer Gefen
KR: What do you think it is about her music that draws people in?
MS: I think the music does this because she is an honest musician who draws directly from her influences, yet she makes it her own. She knows what she likes, and what she doesn’t like. She loves the tango, but hates the rhumba. Many people grow up singing church hymns or chants, hearing or playing Chopin and Beethoven, and when she combines this with the Ethiopian chants, it feels strangely familiar yet completely unique. People can relate to it, yet it’s so new and different. It’s exciting!
KR: Has your project thrown up any surprises?
MS: I think the biggest surprise is that, no matter how hard I searched for other transcriptions of the music, or other performers playing it, I didn’t find any. Then, when I was in Israel, I met a crew of people, literally a crew of 30 people headed by Maya Dunietz, with writers, filmmakers, musicians, who are putting on a festival of Emahoy’s music as part of the Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival. They are publishing some of her pieces too, and doing lots of things that are beyond my reach, like publishing a book and a documentary. I am in a place right now where I can dedicate myself to archiving the music, so our work is complimentary – I am taking a load off their shoulders, and they are off mine. It could have been a disaster, but they are really great people and everyone just wants good things for Emahoy.
KR: What’s your next step?
MS: Next I go to Jerusalem in July, start archiving her sheet music, and prepare them for publishing. This is the kind of thing that will take a while, but I hope to make the music available a few pieces at a time and eventually do a critical edition of her complete works. Let’s hope we succeed! It’s a rather intimidating job I’ve accidentally given myself.
We wish Mary and Emahoy the best of luck. You can read more about the Emahoy Sheet Music Project and donate HERE.