Emahoy Tsegue Maryam Guebrou: The Ethiopian Nun and Pianist

Emahoy Tsegue Maryam Guebrou: The Ethiopian Nun and Pianist

Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (1923) to a wealthy family (her father was a mayor) Emahoy Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou and her sisters moved to a boarding school in Switzerland at an early age. They were the first girls to be sent abroad for their education. Here Emahoy studied violin and became an accomplished player. 

In the 1930s, she returned home and began her life, going to high-society parties and singing for the emperor, Haile Selassie. She owned a car and raced horses and carts. 

Emahoy became the first woman to work as a civil servant in Ethiopia, the first to sing in an Ethiopian Orthodox church and the first to work as a translator for the Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem later in her life (she spoke seven languages). 

However, her life changed when Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia. Along with her family, some of whom died, she was detained in an Italian prison camp. 

After the war, she moved to Cairo to pursue her music under the wing of Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz. Emahoy practised nine hours a day until the Egyptian heat became too much. She eventually returned home to recover in the more temperate climate of the Ethiopian capital.


Emahoy was now an accomplished, classically trained musician. She planned to study music in London, yet for reasons she would not disclose, she didn’t go. 

The disappointment of missing this opportunity to study in London made her give up on music entirely and devote herself to God. At 21, Emahoy became a nun, spending a decade living in a hilltop monastery in Ethiopia with no shoes or music, later what she described as nothing but prayer. 

After a decade, it was only then that Emahoy returned to music. She began playing the piano. Her first record was released in Germany in 1967. 

In 1984, her religious beliefs were attacked under the rule of the new dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Emahoy fled to an Ethiopian Orthodox convent in Jerusalem, where she lived the rest of her life. 

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam died last year, on 26 March 2023 in Jerusalem, at the age of 99. 

What she left behind was a collection of timeless pieces. Just as they have no fixed tempo or scale, her composition sits between traditions and norms. Her music was as impressive as it is now and forever will be.