Sound & Vision: The Homeless Wanderer & The Home As Wanderer

Sound: "The Homeless Wanderer" by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (from Éthiopiques Vol. 21: Piano Solo)
Vision: "Tandem" | Animated GIF by Christopher Smith

I'm a bit shocked that I haven't already posted something from the Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou volume of the dependably mind-melting Éthiopiques series. This album is one of those few that elicits absolute awe every time I come back to it.

What's perhaps most remarkable, beyond the almost supernaturally expressive music, is the Ethiopian pianist's life story. Born in 1923 to a wealthy, intellectual Abyssinian family, Emahoy—then named Yèwèbdar Gebru—was sent at age six to study in Europe and quickly became something of a child prodigy, first with the violin and then piano.

In 1936, back in Ethiopia, Gebru and her family were taken as prisoners of war during Mussolini's occupation, and were subsequently deported. Upon relocating to Cairo after the war, she resumed her musical studies with a renowned Polish violist. Then, back in Ethiopia yet again, she served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then in the Imperial Body Guard.

It's important to note that in Ethiopia, music as a profession is generally degraded, with musicians lumped into the disrespected "azmari" caste (somewhat akin to gypsies or our own buskers and starving artists). Gender politics of course added another serious hurdle. In this cultural climate, Emahoy not only passionately pursued her musical training, but developed a singular style and illustrious talent.

Hoping to further her musical studies in England, Yèwèbdar was devastated when the Emperor disallowed her promised benefactor (one of his sons) from sponsoring her trip. She fell into a severe depression, refusing to eat, and eventually became so sick that she was delivered last rites.

In 1948, she secretly fled Addis Abeba—Ethiopia's capital and Yèwèbdar's birthplace—and entered a monastery, where she was ordained a nun two years later. (This is when she changed her name.) Monastic life once again jeopardized her health, but she persisted in playing and composing music, often devoting up to nine hours per day.

Since then, Emahoy moved to Jerusalem (largely due to religious persecution in Ethiopia during the reign of genocidal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam) and has set up a foundation (the Emahoy Tsege Mariam Music Foundation) to extend music education to under-privileged children: to "teach classical and jazz music to children in Africa and assist American children to study music in Africa."

Now 87, she still plays music 7 hours a day.

As for the image, the cascading arpeggios of the song seem to beg for something kinetic, and this animated GIF by UK artist Christopher Smith evokes a similar lost-in-time feeling. The visual artifacts from the drawn frames pair whimsically with the warm, vintage, vinyl static of the recording. Plus...a chimney with smiling smoke?! How could we resist?!

[Buy the CD from Insound HERE.]

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