Maya Youssef, the Syrian qanun player who moved to London in 2012 to pursue a career in music, won the Newcomer Award this week at the Songlines Music Awards 2018, which is one of world music’s highest-profile events.
Youssef received the nomination for her 2017 released track Syrian Dreams.
The 33-year-old former UAE resident told us about the process of writing this song earlier this year: "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. 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."
Despite global unfamiliarity with her 78-string, traditional Arabian instrument, Youssef’s fragile, heartfelt compositions have struck a universal chord. She is the only Arab, and the only instrumentalist to have ever been singled out for the honour, and this year she competed against established African superstars Vieux Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore and Oumou Sangare.
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.
"It’s not what you expect from an Arabic qanun player," Youssef said of her music. "It challenges what you expect from a woman playing a very traditional instrument – it broke the stereotypes.”
Youssef move from Damascus to Dubai in 2007, and while in the UAE she performed everywhere from the Burj Al Arab to Sharjah's Al Qasba.