Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru - Souvenirs LP


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Label: Mississippi

BuyStandard black vinyl version. Comes with 16-page booklet.

The songs you hear on Souvenirs were composed and recorded at Emahoy's family's home in Addis Ababa between 1977 and 1985. It was a time now known as the Red Terror, during which a socialist military junta killed tens of thousands of Ethiopians, including members of Emahoy's family. Though they were recorded while still living at home, Emahoy sings of exile and homesickness for her beloved Ethiopia. 

Emahoy carried these precious tapes with her when she finally entered permanent exile in Jerusalem in 1985. Despite the disapproval of the Ethiopian Orthodox church (nuns, after all, should not be singing), Emahoy managed to self-release a tiny run of CDs featuring these vocal songs in 2013. Sold only at the monastery's gift shop, she entitled the CD Souvenirs (perhaps a double meaning with the French word for memories). 

It was Emahoy's wish that these songs would be heard more widely, and it was from this CD that we tried, in collaboration with her family and Foundation, to release a record for years. But the sound quality was off, the recordings somehow rushed and thin. It wouldn't do her justice. 

This March, researcher Thomas Feng and I were traveling to Jerusalem to meet Emahoy and talk about her recordings in person. Days before our arrival, we heard of her passing, at age 99. Instead of meeting, we attended Emahoy's funeral and helped her mourning family clear out her cell at the Kidane Mehret monastery. 

It was heartbreaking and disorienting, but we felt we had a purpose. Our mission solidified when hundreds of manuscripts and 64 cassette tapes were found among the materials Emahoy had accumulated in her tiny cell.

Many of the cassettes featured Emahoy's recordings of the liturgical singing of the church,  which she captured reverberating off the ancient stones during all-night services. Other tapes featured her almost Alvin Lucier-style dubs of dubs of dubs of her previous releases. Spread across the tapes, amongst aural evidence of Emahoy's wide-ranging musical life, were the original master recordings of the songs on the Souvenirs CD. 

When they were transferred by our friends at Albina Music Trust we were shocked to realize that the CD version we knew had been digitized nearly 10% too fast. At their correct speed, Emahoy's piano rolled out in all its lushness, the songs took form and shape. With Ermias Zemichael's meticulous and brilliant lyric translations, the poetry and longing in Emahoy's verse comes through. Finally, we could experience Souvenirs as it was meant to be heard. 

We never had a chance to ask Emahoy about these songs. We do know that she wanted them in the world. And we know, from the tumultuous story of her life and travels, what a miracle it is that they were ever recorded and preserved. It's with immense gratitude to Emahoy's family, her community at Kidane Mehret, and most of all to Emahoy herself, whose vision and faith made it possible, that we share these songs now, in what would have been her 100th year.

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