Emahoy Tsegué Mariam Guèbru (originally Yewubdar Guèbru) was born in Addis Ababa on December 12, 1923 to a family of aristocratic heritage related to the imperial family on both sides.
At the age of six, she experienced the first of many life-changing events: together with her sister Senedu Guèbru, she was sent by her father to a boarding school in Switzerland to receive, as he had, a European education. They were the first girls ever in Ethiopia to enjoy such a privilege.
Two years after arriving at the school, eight-year-old Tsegué Mariam began studying the violin with a private tutor, and later on, the piano which she studied alone. She was extremely happy at the school in Switzerland, but after five years the girls returned to Ethiopia where Tsegué Mariam continued her studies at Empress Woizero Menen’s boarding school.
Her musical talent did not escape the attention of her family or of Emperor Haile Selassie. However, the country was invaded in 1936 by Italy, and Ethiopia’s leading families either fled or were expelled. Tsegué Mariam and her family were sent to the Asinara Islands, close to Sardinia, where they lived for almost a year. They subsequently moved to Mercogliano, a town close to Naples, where they were held for two and a half years as political prisoners. Throughout their exile Tsegué Mariam continued with her music.
In 1939 the family was granted permission to return to Addis Ababa and in 1940, Tsegué Mariam began working as the first ever female secretary at the Foreign Ministry. In addition, she continued playing and studying, and composed music for the piano and violin. After two years at the Foreign Ministry she asked her father to help her obtain permission from the Emperor to continue her studies abroad. This is how she found herself in Cairo where she studied the violin with the renowned Polish violinist, Alexander Kontorowicz. After two years of this, Cairo’s weather proved too damaging to her health and on her doctor’s advice, she returned to Addis Ababa together with Kontorowicz and his wife.
On her return, her musical career began losing momentum. There were no classical musicians in Ethiopia at that time and certainly no female musicians. As a result, Tsegué Mariam felt a great sense of isolation which was soon alleviated by an unexpected and extremely welcome piece of news: she had received a grant to study at the prestigious music academy in London. This trip was dependent on the permission of the local authorities and this was unexpectedly refused. This refusal impacted dramatically on her life: she sank into a deep depression and refused to eat for twelve days, drinking only coffee. Her family was away during this fateful period, returning just in time to save her as she lay in the house on the verge of death. She was immediately hospitalized.
Dangerously ill, she asked to receive Holy Communion. This was a highly unusual request as she had never lived a religious life. After receiving communion from a local priest, she slept a full twelve hours, having not slept a single night for three weeks. According to Tsegué Mariam, when she finally woke up, she was no longer the same person. The disturbing thoughts that had been plaguing her disappeared and were replaced by a deep sense of peace. She began attending church regularly and immersed herself in the spirituality of the church music and the priests’ melodious voices.
She gradually regained her strength and submitted a new request to the Emperor to find her a position, and she accepted a post in the office of the Imperial Bodyguard. Her daily routine for the next two years consisted of a daytime office job, a short rest in the late afternoon, and an extended prayer session throughout the night. She devoted herself to religious studies and, for the first time since the age of eight, abandoned her music.
After two years her religious devotion had intensified significantly and, together with her mother, she travelled to the monastery of the Gishen Mariam Ethiopian Tewahedo (unified) Orthodox Church in northern Ethiopia. She was totally captivated by life in the monastery and asked if she could stay. The head of the monastery, however, refused to accept her without her parents’ permission and suggested she wait a year. She returned reluctantly to Addis Ababa and her daily routine. But a year later, having taken off time to travel around Ethiopia, she instead escaped to the hills and joined the monastery.
In the monastery she changed her name from Yewubdar Guèbru to Emahoy Tsegué Mariam Guèbru. She lived there for ten years, barefoot throughout, in a small hut with a bed made of mud and stone and with only one sheet and blanket. She abandoned her music and spoke no other language other than Amharic (despite the fact that she speaks five languages fluently).
After her stay at the monastery, Tsegué Mariam returned to her mother’s home in Addis Ababa for what proved to be the most creative period of her life. She began composing again and even recorded a number of albums. She combined her creative life with her love and concern for children. The “secret” of the great Ethiopian composer was out and she became the subject of a great deal of world media attention with numerous articles and glowing reviews written about her.
Towards the end of the 60s, Tsegué Mariam and her mother came for an extended visit to Jerusalem. The decision to visit the city was a religious act stemming from her profound faith and reflecting the deep bond between Ethiopia and the Holy City.
She remained in the city for six years before returning to Ethiopia, but her mother went back after just a year. Following the death of her mother in 1984 and the communist revolution in Ethiopia, Tsegué Mariam undertook the final journey of her nomadic existence and returned to Jerusalem where she lives until today at 10 Ethiopia Street.
Now, largely due to this project, the world will have access to her fascinating life story and unique musical talent–Hallelujah.