Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou

Diva Harris | 31st March 2023

Diva Harris pays tribute to the life and legacy of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou: the composer, pianist and nun who died last weekend aged 99.

I first unexpectedly came to the music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou via Kate Molleson’s excellent 2017 Radio 4 documentary The Honky Tonk Nun. Its title conjured images of a rowdy southern-American knees-up soundtracked by a good-time sister, habit perhaps slightly askew as she hammered the ivories to a neon-lit room of scudding cowboy boots and flying fringe. The reality, though, was not only distant, but as opposite as could be; Molleson had travelled to the top of a Jerusalem mountain to meet Guèbrou, and hear the story of the then-93-year old’s extraordinary life: spanning an upbringing in Addis Ababa high society of the 1920s and 30s; performing for Emperor Haile Selassie; racing around on horseback; a mysteriously thwarted plan to study music in London; “years of barefoot self-exile in a remote hill monastery” — and latterly, time spent mostly with god, but sometimes, in the quiet of the night, given over to playing and composition — Guèbrou making occasional notations on the walls of her small room.

Despite any impression her nickname might otherwise give, the Honky Tonk Nun effortlessly conjured sublimity from the keys. Listen when you’re up and it’s like swallowing the liquid yolk of the sun; listen when you’re down and you’ll find solace, refuge, a companionable sense of peace. Always, though, her music taps the trunk and rises the sap of the spirit; whether or whatever you believe about him upstairs, it’s a gateway to a higher state — a generous offering of love that makes the soul sing.

I’m so grateful to have Guèbrou’s music to return to over and over again, and as I write this, I raise the record player needle to a long life gracefully and vivaciously lived. I hope you’ll do the same.

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, 12 December 1923 – 26 March 2023