Boomkat Product Review:
Real heart-stopping, life-affirming, almost indescribably beautiful posthumous album featuring (for the first time) vocal works by beloved, dearly departed, Ethiopian nun and now-legendary pianist/composer Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru, room recorded straight to tape between 1977-1985, sounds of life just about audible in the background. Almost had an out of body experience listening to it the other night - just a perfect, 10/10 album.
’Souvenirs’ is an intimate self-portrait written, recorded and compiled by the late Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru; a classically-trained pianist turned nun, whose singular style of jazz and blues-inflected composition and performance became globally renowned in her latter years via reissues and compilations reaching as far back as the 1960s, namely the ‘Éthiopiques 21: Piano Solo’ CD and a much-prized eponymous set in 2016. At the age of 99, Emahoy passed away in Jerusalem last year, whilst planning towards this first ever showcase of her vocals - which have never appeared on her purely piano-based recordings until now, making for a truly life-affirming experience from its opening bars.
The posthumous release, realised in collaboration with Emahoy’s family and Mississippi Records - is a stone cold stunner. It grants unprecedented access to her discrete craft and inner world in Addis Ababa, against a backdrop of the Ethiopian Red Terror and Civil War, prior to her subsequent exile in a Jerusalem convent. Whilst all no doubt defined by her signature, intricate and lilting type of classical meets jazz-blues phrasing, the eight songs are all far more concise than her usual instrumental works, made even more spellbinding by the revelation of her softly contoured and captivating vocals that beautifully trace and overlie the cadence of her keys. It’s just pure, unbridled expression that’s only heightened by the seemingly off-the-cuff nature of the recordings, as if she just sung the songs to herself, impromptu, never intended for public consumption.
Replete with incidental creaks of the piano stool, birds outside the window, and Emahoy’s finger on the record button, the songs depict themes of loss, mourning and soon-to-be exile, sung into a basic boombox. They place us in the room with her, closer than ever, privy to a vocal version of the closing number to her eponymous compilation, now unveiled as a dedication her niece, the titular Tenkou, with lyrics to guide her adulthood “Don’t cry / Childhood won’t come back / Let it go with love”, alongside the beatific, open-window paean ‘Clouds Moving on the Sky’, and melancholic hiraeth of ‘Ethiopia My Homeland’ or ‘Don’t Forget Your Country’, and ineffable, humbling elegance of idea and execution to ‘Is It Sunny or Cloudy in the Land You Live?’ and ‘Where is the Highway of Thought?’.