This is one of two songs from Buda Musique’s Ethiopian music series that have been on pretty consistent rotation for me, with the other being Tezeta (Nostalgia) from Mulatu Astatke. While recorded in a very different climate, something about these two songs just feel good now that it is starting to finally get colder here at Orion’s Bastard HQ. I chose this one in part because the story of Esmahoy Tsegue is deserves a much wider audience, though whether a post on this blog delivers that is another, more embarrassing question.
She was born to a wealthy family in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa and was sent off to boarding school in Switzerland at the age of 6. Though the Ethiopiques series from which Mother’s Love is taken is meant to focus on Ethiopian jazz, Emahoy’s views her own music as the result of her blend of classical training and traditional Ethiopian Orthodox chanting, according to a profile in The Guardian. From the same Guardian profile:
In the 1930s, she returned to Addis: portraits from this period show a gorgeous young woman with a wry smile and a bold fashion sense. She went to high-society parties and sang for Haile Selassie. She had a car and raced a horse and trap around the city. She was a feminist: the first woman to work for the Ethiopian civil service, the first to sing in an Ethiopian Orthodox church, the first to work as a translator for the Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem. “Even as a teenager I was always asking, ‘What is the difference between boys and girls?’” she told me. “We are equal!”
That life was brutally disrupted when Benito Mussolini, with an eye on a potential colony, invaded Ethiopia in 1936 and three members of Emahoy’s family were killed. She was evacuated to Europe, but she was unfazed in her determination to become a musician and eventually found her way to Cairo to study with esteemed Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz.
After years of studying classical music, she became a nun and began focusing on her religious duties and playing music on the side. It was here that she developed this unique blend of classical music and the chanting mass of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which started with the 6th-century Ethiopian saint Yared. You can hear examples of this kind of chanting, which is still practiced today, on youtube. Despite being 93 years old, Emahoy is still composing and recording music, though it’s not clear whether another album is in the works. In addition to the Buda Musique compilation available on their website (link above), Mississippi Records also released a compilation of her work that includes Mother’s Love as well as another great song of hers, Homesickness. I’m convinced Homesickness is an arrangement of the Mulatu Astatke song I mentioned above, but I guess you’ll have to listen for yourself to be the judge of that.