Syrian musician Maya Youssef: ‘Making music was like an act of defiance’

Syrian musician Maya Youssef: ‘Making music was like an act of defiance’
Maya Youssef isgoing to release a new concept album “Finding Home,” on March 25, introducing some Western instruments to her sound. (Supplied)
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Updated 25 March 2022

Syrian musician Maya Youssef: ‘Making music was like an act of defiance’

Syrian musician Maya Youssef: ‘Making music was like an act of defiance’
  • The groundbreaking Syrian qanun player talks influences, sexism and ‘home’

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.




She signed up for qanun classes and studied music for five years at the prestigious Higher Institute of Music in Damascus. (Supplied)

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.




Youssef always had the head — or the ears — for music. (Supplied)

“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.




The qanun is held in great reverence in Arabic culture. (|Supplied)

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.




A special commission from London’s Leighton House Museum also awaits Youssef. (Supplied)

“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. 


Italian screenwriter wows cinemagoers on first visit to the Kingdom

Italian screenwriter wows cinemagoers on first visit to the Kingdom
Updated 16 sec ago

Italian screenwriter wows cinemagoers on first visit to the Kingdom

Italian screenwriter wows cinemagoers on first visit to the Kingdom
  • Giacomo Mazzariol’s movie screened as part of weeklong European Film Festival
  • 25-year-old says he plans to return and hopes to mentor young Saudi talent

RIYADH: An Italian screenwriter has described Saudi Arabia as having “amazing culture and traditions” after delighting cinemagoers with his very first screening in the Kingdom.

But 25-year-old Giacomo Mazzariol said he was nervous about how people might react to his film, “My Brother Chases Dinosaurs.”

“While sitting and watching your movie from another country, your mind is full of fears and doubts,” he told Arab News.

“‘Will my film be welcomed well? Does everything make sense?’ I then relaxed because I realized that people who watched the film were really satisfied and they had a warmhearted reaction. They felt that it was an honest film, full of true emotions.”

Directed by countryman Stefano Cipani, the movie was screened on June 17 as part of the inaugural European Film Festival, which saw 14 European films shown at The Esplanade VOX Cinema in Riyadh.

Mazzariol said the audience was intrigued with the movie and asked him many questions after the screening.

“The people laughed a lot because the film is full of lightness and humor, but also they took it seriously and they were fulfilled by the dramatic and touching parts.

“The story is about the emotional coming of age of my character (Gio), that goes from the incomprehension of the inner world of Gio to the complete acceptance and understanding of his diversity. The journey goes through rage and shame, surprise and courage, fraternity and solitude, and it starts from the birth of Gio till he grows up and becomes a teenager.”

While in Saudi Arabia, Mazzariol and a delegation from the EU were also set to hold a workshop for local talent in collaboration with the Alkhobar-based Arabia Pictures Group, but the event had to be postponed.

“The Kingdom has amazing culture and traditions that should be communicated more to people all over the world, not only with tourism but also through sharing local stories, through art based on nowadays life and perspectives,” he said.

“Arabia Pictures proposed to me to hold it (the workshop) during this edition of the festival, but we didn’t manage to make it happen this time. That is why I am supposed to come back to the Kingdom, during the next edition of the festival.”

Mazzariol said that on his return he hopes to be able to mentor young Saudis who are interested in the film and screenwriting business.

“I think the second edition will be in the late winter or beginning of spring. The main theme will be the relationship between books and movies based on my experience of creating the script of the movie based on my novel.”

He said he hoped to teach Saudi students how to analyze and compare the two arts of writing and film.

“This can be achieved through watching scenes of movies based on books and comparing them with the scenes of a book — Kafka’s works adapted, Dostoevsky works adapted, etc. — and also obtaining the knowledge to distinguish the unicity of those two forms of art.

“Some books are almost impossible to be shot, like ‘Ulysses’ by (James) Joyce, or the work of Proust. Not just for the number of pages, but because they reach a literary high peak which is very specific to literature,” he said.

Mazzariol said he had always had a passion for writing and loved literature classes in school.

“When I was in high school, with all the imagination and ideas that a teenager can have, I began writing for myself and tried to publish some articles.”

His career as a screenwriting began when he published a short film with his brother Gio on YouTube.

“My brother (Gio) with Down syndrome was in the film. It became viral and the person who would become my future editor contacted me to do a book on the video and my story.”

Speaking about the two days he spent in the Kingdom during the film festival, Mazzariol said: “What impressed me the most were the modern buildings, the skyscrapers, the entertainment areas, because it seems futuristic.

“It was the first time for me to visit Saudi Arabia. I love traveling and discovering new countries and thanks to the festival’s organizers and the embassy of Italy, I could get in touch with Saudis that know Saudi Arabia well.

“In the markets of the old town, I got a sensation of being at the door of another world, because there were incredible products from all over the Middle East and Asia.”

The writer said he spent some time studying in King Fahad National Library before exploring some of the natural desert landscapes the Kingdom has to offer.

“I loved the hot winds, sand as far as the eye can see. It was very inspiring because I have always read books from that scenario, for example, ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ but never experienced it.

“The hospitality of the European Film Festival was very high standard and well done, I thank them a lot. I hope the festival will have great success also in the next editions. I know for sure it is going to be bigger and bigger.”


International artists commissioned for AlUla’s Wadi AlFann

A rendering of Ahmed Mater's work at Wadi AlFann. (Supplied)
A rendering of Ahmed Mater's work at Wadi AlFann. (Supplied)
Updated 39 min 10 sec ago

International artists commissioned for AlUla’s Wadi AlFann

A rendering of Ahmed Mater's work at Wadi AlFann. (Supplied)

DUBAI: A clutch of artists have been announced as the first to embark on ambitious projects in AlUla’s new Wadi AlFann valley dedicated to large-scale installations.

The Royal Commission for AlUla announced that US artists James Turrell, Agnes Denes and Michael Heizer will be joined by Saudi creative pioneers Ahmed Mater and Manal AlDowayan will create works for the 65sq kilometer space. The projects will be unveiled from 2024 onwards.

Wadi AlFann, AlUla. (Supplied)

Meanwhile, the former director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London Iwona Blazwick has been named as the chair of the commission’s Public Art Expert panel, which advises on Wadi AlFann.

For his part, Mater’s installation for the valley, named “Ashab Al-Lal,” will use a subterranean tunnel and mirrors to give visitors the optical illusion of seeing a mirage, while AlDowayan’s “The Oasis of Stories” will be a labyrinthine structure inspired by the mud homes of AlUla’s ancient old town.

A sketch of AlDowayan’s “The Oasis of Stories.” (Supplied)

Ninety-one year old Denes will create a series of soaring pointed pyramids in a bid to explore civilization, advancement and achievement.

Meanwhile, Heizer, who is known for producing large outdoor earthwork sculptures and for his work with rock, concrete and steel, will create lineal engravings in the sandstone rock relating directly to the geology of the area and the varied detail of the Quweira sandstone.

Turrell will build upon the sensorial experience of space, color and perception by creating a series of spaces within the canyon floor. The viewer will explore these spaces via a series of tunnels and stairs.

“Wadi AlFann is unprecedented in its ambition,” Blazwick said in a released statement, adding: “It will set a new global example for experiencing art in dialogue with nature, celebrating the human creativity that unites communities across the world and inspiring current and future generations of artists. A display of such epic scale, set in a terrain as monumental as the AlUla desert, has the potential to shape the course of art history in real time.”


‘The beauty industry is failing people of color,’ Huda Kattan says

US-Iraqi beauty mogul Huda Kattan has been featured in a newly released documentary. (File/ AFP)
US-Iraqi beauty mogul Huda Kattan has been featured in a newly released documentary. (File/ AFP)
Updated 27 June 2022

‘The beauty industry is failing people of color,’ Huda Kattan says

US-Iraqi beauty mogul Huda Kattan has been featured in a newly released documentary. (File/ AFP)

DUBAI: US-Iraqi beauty mogul Huda Kattan has been featured in a newly released news segment on racial inclusivity in the makeup industry.

Released by the UK’s Sky News on Sunday, the feature is based on the British Beauty Council’s criticism of what it calls the “apartheid” in the beauty industry.

Kattan was tapped to share her opinion in the feature, which is titled “The ‘Apartheid’ in the Beauty Industry.”

“The beauty industry is absolutely still failing people of color,” she told journalist Sabah Choudhry in the documentary. “Being inclusive is hard. It takes so much work. When I used to go to the factories and I’d say I need a deep or richer shade of foundation, they’d sometimes put black pigment in the formula... it’s harder to serve a community who doesn’t have a skin tone that hasn’t been worked on so much,” she added.

“There’s still not enough care and consideration taken when they’re creating the products,” she added. “I mean, you can use people of many different ethnicities in a campaign, but that’s just not enough. It’s a good start, but it’s so far beyond where we should be in this day and time. So, I would say absolutely, it’s still failing all people of color right now.”

Dubai-based Kattan founded her cosmetics line Huda Beauty in 2013. In 2018, the company was valued by Forbes at more than $1 billion.

Meanwhile, Dr Ateh Jewel, a spokesperson for the British Beauty Council, was featured in the report saying Caucasian people are offered a wider selection of products for their hair and skin.

"We are living with the hangover of empire… what I'm really interested in is power, and measuring that by beauty standards and how we see ourselves,” Jewel said.

She explained that the term “beauty apartheid” was coined to describe brands who simply add a small sample of darker shades to their portfolio in a “tokenistic” approach to diversity.

The mental health impact for people of color is “painful,” she said, adding “walking into a beauty hall was pleasure and pain all wrapped up into one. Not seeing yourself reflected in advertising or diverse colors can also be really damaging to your sense of self…. to your self-esteem... and taking your rightful place in the world.


Designer Amina Muaddi shows off streetstyle at Paris Men’s Fashion Week

The designer showed off a yellow-hued makeup look at the show. (Getty Images)
The designer showed off a yellow-hued makeup look at the show. (Getty Images)
Updated 26 June 2022

Designer Amina Muaddi shows off streetstyle at Paris Men’s Fashion Week

The designer showed off a yellow-hued makeup look at the show. (Getty Images)

DUBAI: Jordanian Romanian footwear designer Amina Muaddi was spotted at Paris Men’s Fashion Week wearing a colorful ensemble that caught the attention of streetwear photographers.

Muaddi — whose namesake label is a favorite among celebrity clientele such as the Kardashian-Jenner sisters and Rihanna, with whom she has collaborated, attended the Louis Vuitton showcase and the Loewe show, to which she wore a white V-neck crop top with multi-colored wide-legged pants complete with a bright yellow crossbody bag by the Spanish label.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by AMINA MUADDI (@aminamuaddi)

Loewe thrust Paris Menswear Fashion Week into a bleak and dystopian vision of the future on Saturday — turning its runway into a dead space where nature and animal life only existed to be harnessed and exploited by humankind. A sanitized white wall descended onto a bare deck as models walked by robotically, bathed in misty white light, the Associated Press reported.

Models wore plates of television screens showing deep water fish in the ocean, and plasma screen visors beamed out growing chrysanthemums. The only place that grass grew in designer Jonathan Anderson’s fashion dystopia was literally out of shoes, where green blades quivered and flapped surreally as the automatons filed by.

The British designer used the remarkable set and concept not only as a springboard for some of the most accomplished designs seen this season, but to make a thoughtful comment about ecology and humanity’s contempt for the natural world.

The organic versus the robotic was explored in Anderson’s conceptual designs that were intentionally off-kilter, according to the Associated Press. A white minimalist sweater had surplus sleeves that flapped about limply at the side of the model, on top of white sports leggings and loafers sprouting 10-centimeter clumps of grass.

Bare chests and legs exposed vulnerability, while hard, square-strap bags slung across the shoulder added a contrasting fierceness. But the piece de resistance must have been the giant mustard toggle shoes that looked like the hooves of a horse but could equally have come from the set of a “Star Wars” planetary village.

Elsewhere, Cowgirls and cowboys mingled in Moroccan French brand Casablanca’s eye-popping show that was notable for its highly unusual set. The co-ed collection was staged in front of several fenced-off horses that paid little attention to the clothes, passed waste nonchalantly and sniffed in the opposite direction.

Designer Charaf Tajer cared little for the indifferent equine reaction, sending down the runway energetic and enthusiastic looks that harked from the heartland of American rodeos and the Wild West.

 


Refugee choir performs at UK’s Glastonbury Festival

The choir, which was founded in 2015 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, is made up of 50 people. (Instagram)
The choir, which was founded in 2015 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, is made up of 50 people. (Instagram)
Updated 26 June 2022

Refugee choir performs at UK’s Glastonbury Festival

The choir, which was founded in 2015 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, is made up of 50 people. (Instagram)

DUBAI: The Citizens of the World Refugee Choir performed at the UK’s Glastonbury Festival on Sunday.

The choir, which was founded in 2015 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, is made up of 50 people.

Becky Dell, the musical director, told PA that the choir is a 50/50 split of refugees and non-refugees, and calls itself a “rainbow tribe (because) none of us look the same as each other – it’s amazing.”

She said the choir hopes to “elevate the narrative around refugees; too often the story is ‘poor refugees,’ it’s sending them far away. We wanted to show refugees in a different way. They are displaced human beings first and foremost.”

The choir opened the festival’s Avalon Stage on Sunday with a solo 40-minute set.