EMPOWERMENT AND MUSIC EDUCATION ONE CHILD AT A TIME
In early 1960s Emahoy lived in Gondar studying the religious music of St Yared, composer and father of Mahlet, the early Ethiopian religious music. On her daily trips to and from the church, she came across young students in Liturgy known as “yekolo temari” One day she asked why these young people sleep outdoor by the church gate. She was told they beg for food and lodging and are homeless while they pursue their education with the church. Emahoy was deeply moved by the sacrifices these young people made to study the Mahlet. Although I did not have money to give them, I was determined to use my music to help these and other young people to get an education, Emahoy told Alula Kebede in her interview on his Amharic radio program on the Voice of America.
Yewubdar Gebru was born in Addis Abeba on December 12, 1923 to a privileged family. Her father Kentiba Gebru and her mother Kassaye Yelemtu both had a place in high society. Yewubdar was sent to Switzerland at the age of six along with her sister Senedu Gebru. Both attended a girls’ boarding school where Yewubdar studied the violin and then the piano.
She gave her first violin recital at the age of ten. She returned to Ethiopia in 1933 to continue her studies at the Empress Menen Secondary School. In 1937 young Yewubdar and her family were taken prisoners of war by the Italians and deported to the island of Asinara, north of Sardinia, and later to Mercogliano near Naples.
After the WarYewubdar resumed her musical studies in Cairo, under a Polish violinist named Alexander Kontorowicz. Yewubdar returned to Ethiopia accompanied by Kontorowicz and she served as administrative assistant in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later in the Imperial Body Guard where Kontorowicz was appointed by the Emperor Haile Selassie as music director of the band.
Young Yewubdar secretly fled Addis Abeba at the age of 19 to enter the Guishen Mariam monastery in the Wello region where she had once before visited with her mother. She served two years in the monastery and was ordained a nun at the age of 21. She took on the title Emahoy and her name was changed to Tsege Mariam. Despite the difficult life in religious order and the limited appreciation for her music in traditional Ethiopian culture, Emahoy worked fervently day and night. Often she played up to nine hours a day and went on to write many compositions for violin, piano and organ concerto.
The Golden Years
Emahoy left Ethiopia following her mother’s death in 1984 and fled to Jerusalem, Israel because socialist doctrine in Ethiopia during the reign of dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam attacked her religious beliefs. Emahoy is now 85 years old and she plays the piano at the monastery nearly seven hours a day, she continues to write new solo piano compositions. Emahoy has been recognized by many music critics around the world and there is a growing interest in her life and her music by international media including Le Monde, BBC, and Canada TV.
Emahoy’s first record was released in Germany in 1967 with the help of Emperor Haile Selassie. Other recordings followed with the help of her sister Desta Gebru; the proceeds were used to help an orphanage for children of soldiers who died fighting at war. Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru also published her piano compositions in 1973 and used the proceeds from sales of her music to benefit orphaned children in Ethiopia. In keeping with this tradition ETM Foundation gives disadvantaged children access to classical and jazz music genres. Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru donated her previously published and unpublished music for the use of the ETM Foundation.