Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru passed on early this year, but not before this album was released to celebrate her 99th birthday. It collects pieces originally issued in 1972 as Song of Jerusalem, including the stunning title track and "Quand La Mer Furieuse" in which Gebru sings; a moment which probably should not draw parallels with "Garbo Talks!" (when the speaking voice of that star of silent films first shocked audiences to sleep) but is as startlingly beautiful as you might expect if you have heard her play her compositions for piano at all. These she does in a manner impossible to hear without feeling as if the sun has come out from behind a cloud and is gently warming the side of your face. Reach for adjectives and terms such as liturgical, classical, homemade, and heavenly, but the key word is definitely "transcendent."
No superficial label can stick to Emahoy Gebru—although some have been applied which won't be repeated here. The cornerstone of her music is her study of St Yared, the sixth century religious scholar and composer of thousands of hymns, known for devising an 8-note (and 10-note) notation system of music, capable of three different melodic categories. Yared's persistence is legendary and he is the blueprint for the traditional Ethiopian philosophy of musicians making themselves submissive in order to be open to receive musical inspiration from a higher realm. Yaredian melodies are viewed as literally heavenly, timeless or eternal, and capable of creating ecstatic out-of-body trances. Gebru's music follows this path. Her piano playing is neither icy nor flowery, but rather a calm cosmic spot somewhere between the two: like the quiet and tidy alley between rows of houses in a large town where the protagonist in Murukami's Wind Up Bird Chronicle shelters from the stresses and strains of his life (away from memories, strange phone calls, flashbacks, dreams of being pursued, urban ennui, and the obligatory missing cat.)
The notion of music creating out of body trances comes from a legend in which the Emperor of the Aksumite Empire is listening to Yared present some melodic works and the two of them fell naturally into a trance. In this state, the Emperor accidentally impales Yared's foot with his staff, a fact which they only realize after Yared has finished singing. Probably best not to test that theory but Gebru's music does conjure up a lovely feeling, with sporadic anti-metronomic looseness where the rhythm is elastic and can meander or slide happily out of time, lag behind or speed up; rather like how the great Trinidadian calypso singers of the late 1950s would deliver lines with little concern as to whether or not they could fit a prescribed number or bars
Emahoy Gebru persisted through depression and other obstacles, used her music to raise proceeds for building children's homes, and performed for Haile Selassie. Oh to have been a Coptic gadfly on that wall. The legend of Yared didn't end with his death, but concluded that he was hidden away and is still alive (a common way in Ethiopian culture to make a figure's contribution immortal). Earthly fame or riches held no interest for Gebru and thankfully she has avoided becoming the musical equivalent of sun dried tomatoes for the chattering classes. Others may debate the distance from Saturday barroom to Sunday pew, from bedroom to bible, and in which direction music is traveling at any given moment, but what counts is that this transcendent music fits the broader Yaredian worldview suggesting that music is eternal.