DUBAI: The Syrian musician Maya Youssef was only eight years old when she was told something that changed her life. Youssef was on her way through Damascus to a music lesson in a taxi with her mother, when she heard the intriguing sounds of the qanun on the radio. She asked the taxi driver what the instrument was and he said that the qanun was traditionally played only by men.
“I said: ‘I will play it. You’ll see.’ And he just laughed at me,” Youssef tells Arab News.
It was no laughing matter for Youssef. She signed up for qanun classes and studied music for five years at the prestigious Higher Institute of Music in Damascus.
Youssef recalls that time — long before the harrowing civil war — as a “golden age” for Syria’s art scene; buzzing and full of opportunities. She joined a traveling ensemble of female musicians reviving traditional Arabic music. They performed as far away as China. “The qanun has been my companion ever since,” she says.
Youssef always had the head — or the ears — for music. Every evening, she and her family enjoyed listening sessions, taking in African, Western and Arabic classical compositions, from Umm Kulthum to Bach.
“I was humming and tapping all the time, since I was very little,” she says with a chuckle. She is known today as the ‘Queen of the Qanun,’ but when she first started out professionally, a few eyebrows were raised.
“Music should never be gendered,” she says. “But the reality is that, in Arab (music), women are a very small minority. We are maybe three to five percent of qanun players. I have a theory about that. I think because the qanun is such an important instrument — it sits at the heart of the ensemble — the minute you have a qanun in your lap, then you have the spotlight on you. Perhaps for somebody who doesn’t accept a woman being in the spotlight or being powerful, they would find that radical. It’s not very long ago that somebody called me a radical. It’s a symbol of hidden power, so to speak, which is why I think we don’t see many women playing it.”
The qanun is held in great reverence in Arabic culture. It is mentioned in the famed folk tale collection “One Thousand and One Nights” and its name translates means ‘law.’ With 78 strings, it’s not an easy instrument to master. Youssef’s qanun is made of maple wood, and was constructed by a craftsman in Aleppo.
It is often referred to as ‘the piano of the Arab world,’ and like the piano it is capable of producing melodies that are nostalgic, melancholic, and/or cheerful.
“It’s very closely connected to human emotion,” Youssef says. “It makes me feel everything across the spectrum. All of my music is a journey through sorrow and loss, but it always goes towards hope and joy.”
In 2007, Youssef left Damascus for Dubai and then moved to Oman, where she taught music. London has been her home for the past 10 years. When the war broke out in her country, it was a heartbreaking 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 am playing music, I am alive, I am carrying the tradition of my ancestors in me,” she says. “If you are in a state of destruction and then you hear a bird sing, you cannot not feel hope.”
2022 is set to be a busy year for Youssef. This week she will embark on a UK tour that will last nearly three months. She is also going to release a new concept album “Finding Home,” on March 25, introducing some Western instruments to her sound.
“Before, ‘home,’ to me, was a physical place. Syria will always be in my heart, but now I feel ‘home’ has changed from a place to a state. A state where you feel at peace,” she explains.
A special commission from London’s Leighton House Museum also awaits Youssef. She will compose music inspired by the museum’s interiors, particularly its stunning Arab Hall, which is full of tiles from Damascus. The refurbished museum is expected to reopen its doors in the summer, and Youssef will perform her piece in a setting that is emotionally and physically familiar. It is, in a way, a moment of coming full circle.