DUBAI: Syrian musician Maya Youssef was only eight years old when something was said to her that changed her life. Youssef was driving through Damascus to take a music lesson in a taxi with his mother, when she heard the intriguing sounds of qanun on the radio. She asked the taxi driver what the instrument was and he said the qanun was traditionally only played by men.
“I said, ‘I’m going to play it. You will see.’ And he just laughed at me,” Youssef told Arab News.
It was no laughing matter for Youssef. She enrolled in qanun classes and studied music for five years at the prestigious Higher Institute of Music in Damascus.
Youssef remembers this time—long before the terrible civil war—as a “golden age” for the Syrian art scene; lively and full of opportunities. She joins a traveling ensemble of musicians reconnecting with traditional Arabic music. They have performed as far away as China. “The qanun has been my companion ever since,” she says.
Youssef has always had a head – or ears – for music. Each evening, she and her family enjoyed listening sessions, soaking up classical African, Western and Arabic compositions, from Umm Kulthum to Bach.
“I hummed and tapped all the time, ever since I was little,” she laughs. She is known today as the “Queen of Qanun”, but when she started her professional career, a few eyebrows were raised.
“Music should never be gendered,” she says. “But the reality is that in Arabic (music) women are a very small minority. We are maybe three to five percent qanun players. I have a theory on this. I think because the qanun is such an important instrument – it sits at the heart of the whole thing – as soon as you have a qanun in your lap, then you have the spotlight on you. Maybe for someone who doesn’t accept a woman being in the spotlight or powerful, he would find that radical. Not long ago, someone called me a radical. It’s a symbol of hidden power, so to speak, which is why I think we don’t see a lot of women playing it.
The qanun is held in great reverence in Arab culture. It is mentioned in the famous collection of folk tales “One Thousand and One Nights” and its name means “law”. With 78 strings, it’s not an easy instrument to master. Youssef’s qanun is made of maple wood and was built by a craftsman in Aleppo.
It is often called “the piano of the Arab world” and, like the piano, it is capable of producing nostalgic, melancholic and/or joyful melodies.
“It’s very closely related to human emotion,” Youssef says. “It makes me feel everything across the spectrum. All of my music is a journey through grief and loss, but it’s always about hope and joy.
In 2007, Youssef left Damascus for Dubai then moved to Oman, where she taught music. London has been his home for 10 years. When war broke out in her country, it was a harrowing experience that inspired her to compose her own music for the first time, leading to ‘Syrian Dreams’, her debut album.
“Making music was like an act of defiance: I make music, I am alive, I carry the tradition of my ancestors within me,” she says. “If you’re in a state of destruction and you hear a bird sing, you can’t help but feel hope.”
2022 promises to be a busy year for Youssef. This week she will embark on a UK tour that will last almost three months. She will also release a new concept album “Finding Home” on March 25, introducing Western instruments to her sound.
“Before ‘home’ for me was a physical place. Syria will always be in my heart, but now I feel like my ‘home’ has changed from a place to a state. A a state where you feel at peace,” she explains.
A special order from the Leighton House Museum in London is also awaiting Youssef. She will compose music inspired by the interiors of the museum, in particular its magnificent Arabic room, which is full of Damascus tiles. The renovated museum is set to reopen this summer and Youssef will perform his piece in an emotionally and physically familiar setting. It’s sort of the time to come full circle.