Remarkable 'Music of Mourning' From a Reclusive Ethiopian Nun

David J. Kerr, CBE, MD, DSc


December 02, 2020

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hello. I'm David Kerr, professor of cancer medicine at University of Oxford.

I recently received a letter from the widow of a patient we had looked after for many years who passed. It was a warm letter of thanks for all the care that we had given her husband, not at all uncommon in our line of work.

This woman explained how part of her mourning and grieving process was helped by some particular pieces of music that she had turned to in times of need. The music was a remarkable piano composition by a 97-year-old Ethiopian nun, Emahoy Guèbrou, who lives quite an isolated spiritual life in a monastery near Jerusalem. She composed this music in her younger days. I'd never heard of this wonderful Ethiopian composer. Please listen to her music: The Last Tears of a Deceased; the wonderful The Homeless Wanderer; the beautiful Homesickness, Part 1 and Part 2.

I'm not musical enough to be able to describe it in detail, but I thought there were elements of blues in it. I thought I could hear a little of Chopin. What I can say with certainty is that it is rhythmically wonderful and complex. (I don't know if I've told you, but I play the drums in a rock-and-roll cèilidh Scottish dance band, so of course I'm absolutely the right person to ask about rhythm.)

It made me interested to learn what pieces of music each of us turns to and draws strength from, finds beauty in, or, as in the case of my patient's wife, helps as part of grieving.

For me, it would be the Eriskay Love Lilt. This is a song in Gaelic, the spoken word of us Scots. Or Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser in her Songs of the Hebrides — islands in the northwest of Scotland — beautiful songs of loss and mourning. The loveliest line is about an elderly man standing on the shores of his island looking out to sea, remembering the wife that he had lost and saying that she was the music of his heart. I first heard it when it was sung at my grandmother's funeral, the first funeral I'd ever been to, and it stayed with me ever since. It exemplifies a part of Scotland so it's tied up with my home and a small sense of nationalism and pride, but it's the beauty of the words and the haunting melodies that have stayed with me forever. When I write down the music I want for my own funeral memorial service, perhaps I'll make absolutely sure that we have a recording of the Eriskay Love Lilt.

What about you? I'd be terribly interested to hear what tunes, what music, what songs you turn to in times of need. Perhaps you would choose to be uplifted; perhaps you would choose to enjoy the mournful sadness of minor keys. In our cancer center, we have a musicologist who helps support our patients. There is low-level evidence to suggest that being involved in music therapy might reduce stress and anxiety, particularly in younger patients. This may include listening to music, moving to music, or just playing simple instruments. Is music therapy something you think could be beneficial? What music might you turn to in moments of need?

Listen to those tunes. Listen to the wonderful Emahoy Guèbrou and her tinkling piano, and listen to the Eriskay Love Lilt. You'll be moved by them. Thanks, and Medscapers, ahoy.

David J. Kerr, CBE, MD, DSc, is a professor of cancer medicine at the University of Oxford. He is recognized internationally for his work in the research and treatment of colorectal cancer and has founded three university spin-out companies: COBRA Therapeutics, Celleron Therapeutics, and Oxford Cancer Biomarkers. In 2002, he was appointed Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

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