top of page

Vieux Farka Toure

Maya Youssef

Internationally renowned virtuoso player of the Syrian qanun

Sunday 3rd June 2018, 7.30pm

The HUBS, 6 Paternoster Row, Sheffield

Words by Celia Mather


Sorry - no pictures available of the gig.

If you were there and took any, please contact

This TG was part of the 'Culture, Self and Identity' strand of the 2018 Sheffield Festival of Debate. And what better way to explore this than listen to Syrian-born Maya Youssef, her music and her story.

As she opened by plucking and vibrating the strings of her qanun, the whole hall fell into silence, listening with deep intent. The number was called 'Syrian Dreams', the title also of her 2017 CD. It was the first piece Maya ever wrote. In 2012, while watching the TV news in London she saw a young girl, the same age as her own son, dying in her bedroom, a victim of the war raging in her home country. Heartbroken and in tears, the piece "just came out of me", Maya said.

Born in Damascus into a family of writers and artists, as a child she was surrounded by CDs. It had been her father's dream to be a musician but he came from too poor a family. Over the years, he developed eclectic tastes, ranging from Miles Davis jazz to Tibetan monks and Cuban bands. Meanwhile, her mother was musically somewhat more conservative, especially liking the traditional form of zither, the qanun. They would have listening sessions in the afternoon, and Maya liked it all. Hers was not a religious family. With a Buddha, Cross, and Koranic books at home, "We are all of this", her parents would say, and the childhood she remembers is one where people lived peacefully together, with compassion. She doesn't remember then being asked what her religion was, whereas today the Syrian ID card insists on having your religion on it.

When she was only 6-7 years old, her parents signed her into the Sulhi al-Wadi Institute of Music, with the violin her first instrument. But one day, while riding in a taxi, the driver was playing a recording of a qanun and she was very taken with it. However, he was firmly of the opinion that it was an instrument only for men, to which her response was "No, I will do it!". Shortly afterwards, the Institute announced a new qanun class and she joined, the only girl to do so. In fact, she is now certain that back in the past it was an instrument for women. She has been unable to find out the full story, but she knows that in pre-Islamic times women were poets and musicians, akin to a Japanese 'geisha' or when they married the Sultan. She is now forming a group of women qanun players in London who will soon have their launch event, to bring that tradition back.

She introduced her second piece by talking about her first qanun teacher who was very strict, almost like a "military officer". "She told me all the things I should NOT do with it. But the moment she left, I started doing all the things she told me not to: which fingers where, and so on." Years later, sitting in London in a darkened room and feeling overwhelmed by the crisis in her country as well as difficulties in her own life, once again she felt "I should do what I'm not supposed to", and this piece came to her. Short and very vibrant, she called it 'Too Many Questions'.

Maya then told us some more about the history of the qanun. The first known version, a small box with strings, goes back to the 4th century BC. It also appears in the ancient Arabian folk tales 'One Thousand and One Nights'. In the 16th century, it was further developed with more strings.

The name 'qanun' translates into English as 'law' or 'principle', and it is the 'bed rock' of classical Arabian music ensembles. Her version has 78 strings in total, grouped in twos for bass, and threes for the other pitches. It also has levers on the strings which can flip the note up or down the scale. So as well as plucking and strumming with both hands, she also flicks the levers with her left. Maya's own instrument was made in Aleppo, especially designed for her - smaller than usual to make it easier on her back when sitting or carrying. "It is a treasure I had to wait a year for", she added.

Her third number was 'Responses', reflecting how she feels Syrians express their emotions: when they are happy they just want to dance, and when they are sad they do cry, she said.

Maya has been in the UK since 2012, moving to London under the Arts Council’s 'Exceptional Talent' scheme. She now has a small child, but the rest of her family is still in Damascus. It is very hard for them to visit the UK, and she feels it would be "crazy" for her to go there, with all the heavy bombing. Her own brother narrowly missed being killed after he decided not to go to a cafe with a friend, who sadly was. Happily, they are due to meet this July.

Maya calls herself "apolitical". "I believe in peace and love as the way to go", adding that she "can't handle watching the news any more". Alongside the war in her homeland, she has also been through an abusive relationship. Alone in London, she recalled how she hit a "cold, emotional wall", but music saved her. "It was my healer: a way to say how I feel when words fail."  Later she was asked by an audience member if she uses music also to help with the emotional crises that the wider Syrian community is experiencing. For Maya, "Music is a vibration that goes straight to the heart, not the head", and she hopes that the " heavy, visceral" feelings of some of her pieces such as 'Bombs into Roses' (which she played later) will help bring people back to their sense of humanity, and the need for peace not war.

In the second half, Maya was joined by two other musicians: Elizabeth Nott on percussion and Barney Morse-Brown on double bass. This unusual setting for the qanun is something she developed for her CD. Later, Maya told me that Barney is rare for a Western European musician in his understanding of that essential part of Arabic music: quarter-tones. So that is why she chose him!

For the trio's first number she was accompanied only by Barney on his bass. Very melodic and peaceful, its name 'Mada' translates as 'Horizon'. Maya said it is her musical interpretation of an image from home: of sitting under her favourite fig tree, watching the sunrise, eating figs and drinking coffee. Next came 'Touta', her arrangement of a well-known piece by Syrian composer Farid al-Atrash. It is about how, during the civil war there in the 1920s he moved to Egypt where he fell in love with an Egyptian woman, but her family wouldn't accept him. Now Maya was joined by Elizabeth on a riq, a tambour-style drum with rings hanging inside, for a piece that was full of vim, vigour and verve.

Then, during a quick re-tune, Maya said there's a joke about qanuns: how you have to spend half your life re-tuning! There was something haunting about the next piece, a Syrian song from the coast in a rather sombre mood. Called 'The Sea', it starts with the bass, and it was then joined by the qanun and a larger-framed drum called a mazhar.

Next came another of Maya's own creations, this one provoked by film stereotypes of the 'exotic East', where a particular scale from Arabic music is often used (and which we all recognised when she played it!). So she wrote 'Hi-Jazz' to show that "there's so much more to Arabic music". Accompanied by a box drum, Maya went into extremely fast plucking and strumming, sometimes sounding quite 'random' - but, hey, that's jazz! 'Fire Dance' then followed, again with the most extraordinarily complicated rhythms on bass and mazhar.

"Now I'm taking you to my city", Maya said. She explained that Damascus was built in alignment with the seven planets, with a gate for each one, each associated with a different mood or aspect. So she wrote 'Seven Gates of Damascus', a suite in seven sections, each on a different maqam (scale or mode) with its own resonance. It was very moving, and I was left mourning the devastation from bombing of so many places of historical and cultural significance across the Middle East.

'Bombs Into Roses' was the next piece. Maya said it is the most difficult one she has ever written. She was going through a very dark phase in her life: "I felt I was being bombed on many levels. Then, in a dream, I looked up at the sky: bombs were falling but, before they hit, they turned into white petals. Months later, I was at an event where there were white petals. I thought 'OK, so this is my dream' and I wrote it". It started with a very intense phase for the bombing but then turned soft and plaintive as the petals fell.

'Bayati' - named after of one of the maqam modes - also went through many stages musically: at first it was her solo, then joined by base plus a very strong beat box, and then back to something softer with the bass taking the melody, and finally back into full trio dynamic.

For her final number, 'Breakthrough', Maya dedicated it " to the unbreakable human spirit, to all of us". The very enthusiastic audience response suggested we all 'got' what she meant. Then for the encore Maya, Elizabeth and Barney played a happy tune 'Awatef' by the Egyptian composer Mohammad Abdul Wahab. That resulted in another standing ovation, and a very long queue afterwards of people wanting to buy Maya's CD.

bottom of page