Maya Youssef had never written a piece of music before when she sat down at her qanun, fighting the tears rolling down her face, and began playing the first notes of what would become Syrian Dreams – the title track of her debut album – an uncontrollable emotional outpouring inspired by watching the images of war ravaging her homeland.
"It was 2012, I was sitting in my apartment in London, watching the news, and there was this moment when I saw a little girl, the same age as my son – about three-and-a-half, four – dead in her bedroom in Damascus," remembers the 33-year-old former UAE resident. "It hit me at that moment that I might never go back, that I might lose my country – it was really dark, I was in tears, I held the instrument and Syrian Dreams just gushed out of me."
'Music became a real outlet for me'
Born and raised in Damascus, Youssef had arrived in the British capital earlier that same year, after years living in Dubai and Muscat. Now thousands of miles away, connected to her homeland only through frantic messages and tragic news reports, the music began to flow. "I never felt the need to write before, but music became a real outlet for me to just speak about everything I was feeling," she says. "It was very raw, and it came from a place of sheer vulnerability."
Despite the global unfamiliarity of her 78-string, traditional, Arabian instrument, Youssef's fragile, heartfelt compositions have struck a universal chord. Released late in 2017, Syrian Dreams recently earnt Youssef a nomination for Best Artist at the Songlines Music Awards 2018, one of world music's highest-profile events. The only Arab, and the only instrumentalist, to be singled out for the honour, she will compete against established African superstars Vieux Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore and Oumou Sangare at October's awards show in London.
“I came to understand that there is a massive power in showing how you really feel, and being vulnerable. It’s a powerful record because there’s a story behind each piece of music,” she says. “Also, it’s not what you expect from an Arabic qanun player – it challenged what you expect from a woman playing a very traditional instrument – it broke the stereotypes.”
Click to listen to Syrian Dreams:
Coming from a dark place
After that first, dark night, the music continued to flow. The exterior chaos she witnessed enveloping her beloved homeland was mirrored in the interior terror of an abusive relationship, an experience relieved in the poignant Bombs Turn into Roses, inspired by waking abruptly from a haunting dream.
“I was going through domestic abuse at the same time as the situation in Syria had been getting really dark, and I had been losing family and friends,” she remembers. “I had a nightmare, a vision, that I was looking up to a sky full of bombs – they were falling down in slow motion, and just before they hit me they turned into white rose petals – and I woke up at 3am, half asleep, and wrote the main theme of the piece. I couldn’t finish it until 2016 because every time I tried to come back to it was a full circle.
“It was a really dark place from all dimensions – it was the fear of not finding my way, the fear even of dying. When I hit that stage, I heard a voice in my head, saying ‘right, there’s two choices here – do something about it, or perish’.”
A nostalgic longing for the past
Throughout the record, Youssef’s stark, piercing qanun melodies are sympathetically framed by cello, oud and percussion, organic acoustic layers credited in part to Joe Boyd, the legendary rock, folk and world music producer whose credits include early Pink Floyd, Nick Drake, Eric Clapton and REM.
Not all the material comes from such a sombre place. Youssef warmly describes the nostalgic longing of Seven Gates of Damascus as a 10-minute "sonic journey through my city". Meanwhile the musician's "mischievous side" is displayed in Hi-Jazz – a play on the hijaz mode otherwise known as the phrygian dominant scale – too-often employed to add flourishes of exoticism, from Hollywood movies to western pop songs.
“It’s basically me having a bit of a laugh at stereotypes about Arabic music,” Youssef says with a giggle. “Whenever you want to evoke ‘the exotic east’, you just play the scale hijaz – and there’s so much more to Arabic music than this.”
Such an assuredly playful approach could only come from a certified musical omnivore with a rebellious streak. Today, Youssef laughs about the taxi driver who told her at the age of nine, on the way to Damascus’s Solhi al-Wadi Institute, that women should not play the qanun – a rebuttal which only fuelled her resolve to revolt, soon after ditching the violin she was carrying.
This oft-toted anecdote serves to underline both the prejudices and the energy she expended rallying against them. It was only after moving to Dubai in 2007 that Youssef began her career as a soloist, performing at prestigious locations including the Burj Al Arab and Sharjah’s Al Qasba, and receiving wide exposure on Arabic TV channels.
'I'm full of hope'
“The UAE was the beginning for me,” she says. “As a musician you go through two phases – copying other people’s styles, and then finding your own voice. When I was in Damascus, I was within that bubble, I didn’t find it necessary to find my voice. In the UAE, I started playing by myself for 12 hours at a time – I would just do nothing but play, play, play – it was really crucial, because that was the beginning of me finding my unique voice.”
Two years later, Youssef was invited to teach Arabic music and qanun at Oman's Sultan Qaboos University. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities to continue her performance career, after two years she emigrated to London as part of the Arts Council England's Exceptional Talent scheme, and she is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
Work is also already under way on a second album – which is likely to prove a less sombre affair.
“Right now, I’m full of hope, and in a lovely peaceful space in my life,” she added. “Everything I do is intuitive flow – I am not very good at doing stuff from here – everything I do comes from my heart and gut. I am the feely type, so if it doesn’t flow naturally, it’s not going to work for me.”
Introducing the qanun
A descendant of the Egyptian harp, the qanun is believed to date back to the 10th century, where it has been traced to the Assyrian region. The name derives from the Arabic term for “law”. Introduced to Europe in the 12th century, it forms part of the zither family.
Youssef’s qanun consists of 78 strings arranged in groups of three. Trapezoid in shape, the instrument’s body is typically laid on a musician’s knees and plucked with two plectrums. Strings are typically tuned to a given maqam, or scale, and need to be adjusted to play in different keys. In ensembles, other instruments frequently tune to the qanun.
Youssef credits the Turkish masters Goksel Baktagir and Halil Karaduman as her greatest inspirations, the latter serving as her teacher. Traditionally guarded as a men’s instrument, she estimates less than five per cent of qanun players today are women.
“The qanun really is the sound of home,” she adds. “I hear over and over from audiences that it evokes memories, smells, visions – when they hear it, some people just go into ecstatic states of being – they start dancing or start crying. It’s really very visceral, to someone who has grown up with this sound.”