Yewubdar Gebru, later known as Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru, was born on December 12, 1923, in Addis Ababa. She began her training on the violin at the age of six in a Swiss boarding school, marking the beginning of her immersion into the world of classical music. She went back to Ethiopia in 1933 and worked as a musician for Emperor Haile Selassie I until the second Italo-Ethiopian War broke out in 1936 and Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.
She and her family were taken as POWs and held on an Italian island at the time. Emahoy returned to her classical music studies in Cairo, Egypt, after the war. She eventually settled back in Ethiopia, where she worked as an administrative assistant in the office of the Imperial Body Guard band.
There weren’t many classical musicians, let alone women, in Ethiopia at the time. Even the trailblazer was afforded what is likely a once-in-a-lifetime chance to attend a world-renowned music school in London.
But when Ethiopian authorities denied her the chance, she became severely depressed and went away to the Gishen Mariam monastery in Wollo when she was only 19 years old.
At the age of 21, she decided to dedicate her life to God as a nun, and she took the name Emahoy Tsege Mariam. After falling sick in the monastery, she went back to her parents’ house in Addis Ababa and picked up the piano again, returning to her craft and composing music.
During the political unrest of the 1980s, she uprooted her life and became a nun in Jerusalem. There, she kept on playing the piano for as long as she could.
Her music was influenced by her studies of St. Yared Ethiopian religious music from the sixth century at Gondar in the 1960s. The music she has composed over the years is an amalgam of this style and the classical training she had previously received.
She composed a number of songs influenced by Ethiopian sounds as well as western genres such as the blues, which she continued to study and incorporate into her compositions, which many continue to adore.
Before relocating to Jerusalem, she put out her debut album in 1967 and donated all of the proceeds to an orphanage.
Emahoy was well-known for her piano playing, despite having begun her classical training on the violin. She is one of the most remarkable pianists of all time, and she broke ground as Ethiopia’s first female classical musician and composer.
She frequently uses the musical medium to tell stories in her compositions. Some of her loved ones were killed by the Italian invasion during the second Italo-Ethiopian war, and many of her songs, including “The Last Tears of a Deceased,” “Presentiment,” “Mother’s Love,” and “The Song of the Sea,” were written in their memory.
In 2006, her work was featured on a compilation album titled “Ethiopiques Volume 21: Ethiopia Song,” released by the Ethiopiques record label.
Emahoy is well known for her charity and eagerness to help people, in addition to the more than 150 musical compositions she has written and the three albums she has released. After witnessing many young musicians and music students in Gondar struggle and beg for food or a place to sleep, she resolved to use her music to aid those who wish to pursue a musical education.
To support disadvantaged children’s pursuit of music education, she established the Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebre Music Foundation for Youth in Africa and Washington, DC.
The timeless artist was well-known for her recordings but not for her live performances in the same way that other musicians are. In fact, the image of her playing the piano in the religious garb of the monastery she called home after relocating to Jerusalem stands out most in the minds of her many admirers.
On March 26, just nine months shy of her 100th birthday, Emahoy sadly passed away.
Her death was met with widespread grief from her legion of devoted Ethiopian and international fans.
This week, she will be laid to rest in Jerusalem, where she had spent the previous decades of her life.