The Qanun Player You Need to Know: Maya Youssef on Music, Life and Everything Beyond

By Aqdas Fatima

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Syrian Composer Maya Youssef describes herself as many things, she is a performer, an activist, a mentor to musicians and a speaker, but above all, she is a storyteller, who uses the Qanun and her take on contemporary Arab music to bring together people from all over the world and celebrate the beauty of life. In a world full of negative news and differences, Youssef’s enchanting music helps form personal connections that transcend time and geographical space to renew feelings of comfort and hope.

In anticipation of her performance at the Gulbenkian, she sat with Inquire’s Aqdas Fatima to talk a little about music, the Qanun, and what it means to be a female in the industry.


AF: So, what is the Qanun, and how did you come across it?

MY: Well, the Qanun is one of the main soundscapes across Middle East. If you look at the direct translation (from Urdu), it translates to law or principle, and it is thought of as the piano of the Arab world. When you go back to the first instructional book published in Cairo in the 1920s it states that the Qanun is aimed to be played as a piano. It is a very versatile instrument that has evolved through history, and that is what I love about it – it has the dark and the light, and it can produce so many possibilities of sound - it can be subtle or it can roar. I’m in a never-ending process of exploration with it.

How I came across it was during my childhood growing up in Damascus. I was lucky to be born into a very open family; we had vinyl and books and CDs and cassettes everywhere around the house. My parents signed me up to an institute for music when I was around 8 years old; I spent the first few years learning the basics of music, and when it came time to pick one instrument, my parents suggested the violin, which I went with, reluctantly. And then one day I was heading to the institute with my mother and a taxi driver was playing a recording of the Qanun, and 8-year-old me was caught by surprise over what it was. When I said I wanted to play that, the taxi driver laughed and said, “you are a girl, this is an instrument for men - forget about it”. I was very much of a rebel, so when that very night the head of the institute walked in and announced there was a new class on Qanun if anyone was interested, I immediately signed up. My parents were surprised, but within two days I had a second-hand Qanun four times the size of me waiting for me after school, and that is where it all started.

AF: Do you feel the Qanun is receptive in the same way to audiences that are not familiar with the instrument?

MY: Yes…I think it depends on the player. I am naturally a storyteller in both my music and my words, and especially when the audience doesn’t know a lot about the culture or about life in Syria, I think music helps me to give context to help them connect wholeheartedly. If my approach is a mixture of all the things I listened to while I grew up - all the jazz, classical, minimalist, contemporary, and fusion music - alongside this incredibly rich tradition passed down to me, then my tradition is my root and the rest I am free to explore, which has been helpful in connecting with people in such a deep way.

AF: What is the major inspiration behind your music and what you do?

MY: I did not really find my style for a long time; I went through a whole journey before coming to that defining moment when I felt as though I hit a brick wall. I was in my flat in London and my son was sleeping next to me as I watched the news about a girl - the same age as my son - who had died in Damascus, this was around the beginning of the war. In that moment, while I felt like I was stuck in between worlds, I held the Qanun and music started coming out of me. It was basically my tool to survive. Not only was I experiencing the loss of family, friends, and places, but I was also experiencing domestic abuse at the same time. I felt like I was in a pressure cooker, and if I didn’t have that outlet, I would have exploded. I told myself, either do something now, or perish, and that was it. Music became a way to heal, a way to remember, to express my joy, and a way to connect to the parts of me that I can’t reach in any other way.

AF: That must’ve been a lot to handle all at once. So, what is your creative process? How do you take all these emotions and manifest them into something that the audience receives?

MY: I am very intuitive in writing, whatever comes, comes. I do not question its logic. Sometimes it’s raw and heavy, but other times it is also very joyful. To me, my music is about a journey, like life; there is the bitter and the sad, but there is also beauty and joy, and I express all myriads of emotions through my music. And I hear this comment a lot when people come out of a show, they say “oh my gosh, we’ve been through worlds!”

When it comes to the creative journey, sometimes I write the main melody and I sing it to my phone. It often comes to me in awkward moments - the muse - and I go like “Oh muse, why are you talking to me at such an awkward time? I can’t write right now”. But I either write the main melody and then put layers in later, or sometimes it comes to me. Like this piece which I’m writing now, I know it’s for a Qanun and a quartet. It’s just already in my head, I’ve heard it all. I don’t know exactly what goes into it, I mean all creative processes are very nonlinear, but as I said I don’t try to do anything but express what comes to me.

AF: I guess that’s the reason why people connect to it so much, it’s because in the end product you go through the entire journey of what you went through while making it.

MY: Exactly.

AF: I read something I found really interesting, you term music as opposite to death. I was really intrigued by that statement, what got you thinking in that way and what do you really mean by it?

MY: Yeah. When I play music, every cell of my being is vibrating: it’s alive. I’m so much in my element. I think this is the truest form of expression for us humans, even though we try so hard to convince ourselves that we are so different. Everything sort of comes together. When I’m in a place with people and I’m playing music, every corner is alive, and every person is pulsating at the same beat. It’s almost like we’re all in love, and that is life, you know?

AF: That’s amazing. Like you said, you do a lot of work that is very relevant to what is happening in the world, especially in Syria. A lot of your music also tackles themes of belonging and home. Do you think that there’s a particular resonance of that among people now, with how increasingly globalised the world is becoming, especially in a place like a university where the idea of home becomes so vague. Do you think music is a good way to guide people through things like that?

MY: Absolutely. I mean, this is exactly what my second album is about. Home can be a person, a place, a smell, a memory, home can be a flashback. You know, it’s very interesting and my second album is about exploring that state. What started me thinking was I would be walking down the streets in London and I’d have a flashback of being back in Damascus, and I would always have to shake myself out of it and remind myself “you’re here!”. It’s about that state, basically. As I said, music to me is unconditional love, and unconditional love is home: where there is no judgement, you belong. You’re loved and accepted, it’s like the feeling of a grandmother’s warm hug. So, yeah tune in for the next one!

AF: Leading in from that, how do you incorporate messages of hope for people who are battling such things on a daily basis and feel a sense of loss or displacement?

MY: Well, I am an eternal optimist. I don’t listen to the news, to start with, and I go with the beat of my own drum. All I see is beautiful humans, and I love all of them in all of their sexuality, colour, religion, whatever political or non-political affiliations they may have. This is why you need something that doesn’t speak to the head, something that speaks to you on a very visceral level. Listening to music, dancing, smiling at people, doing silly things. I think you should just enjoy life because life is so magical, and we’re so blessed, you know?

AF: Also, considering that you are a female in this industry, have there been any particular challenges that you’ve had to overcome or are still in the process of dealing with?

MY: Being assertive. It’s a woman thing, I know. I became super comfortable with being assertive and saying what I want, when I want, and how I want to. It took me a long time though, I used to be so apologetic. It would always be, “I’m sorry, can you please do this” and I felt as though my soul was crying for something, and I wanted something else. Even if I was given something that I didn’t like I would say “oh, thank you so much” and I had to almost shake myself after that. I think it’s a universal thing, because as a woman, obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone, but you just become compliant. But I am fierce, and I am not apologetic at all about my fierceness. On stage I show my vulnerability but in a way that is, I think, powerful. There are still things that I am working through, I am not a perfect human, in fact, that is what it is like being human. But I think it’s just about being assertive and saying things that you want unapologetically and knowing that you absolutely deserve them.

AF: Do you feel that assertiveness has translated more into your music over time as it has evolved?

MY: Oh, yeah. I mean the more assertive I become the fiercer I am on stage.

AF: And are people in the audience also able to notice and resonate with that?

MY: Definitely, they say it’s great to see a woman being so, you know, bold. I think eventually you just have to stop caring and be sure of what you want.

AF: Do you feel the industry has evolved in any way since you started to accommodate that more? Do you think the landscape for women and the support they receive is changing in this industry?

MY: I think there’s more awareness. There are campaigns like Keychange from the PRS Foundation and other similar things dealing with the unequal representation of women in the music industry in the UK, and in Europe even. Again, I play at the beat of my own drum and keep going with it, there are changes that are definitely positive. It’s not easy for everyone, and I am aware of that, especially if you don’t have the courage or support to be able to say what you want, and I know many of my female colleagues are struggling with that. Naturally if you cannot say what you want and the way you want it, which is an absolute right, people either take advantage or dismiss you. So, there are improvements, but there is still a long way to go.

AF: Is there any particular piece of music or any ritual you revisit when you’re feeling uninspired?

MY: Not really, it’s not a particular piece of music but it’s the Qanun itself. I actually pray before I go on stage. I find this work so deep, and to be a service to humanity, and I take it very seriously. When I meet people it’s almost like a soul rendezvous, you know? So, when I get stuck, I pray, and I go with whatever comes.

AF: So, what can people expect from the performance that you’re giving at the Gulbenkian? And without giving too much away, what do you hope people would take away from it?

MY: It’s obviously very subjective, but I promise for you to be moved in a very tender and warm way. I promise you will leave the place feeling lighter, more connected, and maybe with a smile.

AF: Amazing! That’s all anybody could hope for from a performance anyway. What do you hope is in the future of music and its wider role in the community? Especially for instruments such as the Qanun which aren’t as widely known yet, where would you like for it to be headed?

MY: I mean I can’t answer that for everyone, but I can answer it for my personal journey. Because I see this work as a service to people, it would be amazing that everyone could be themselves, really, without any apology. Wouldn’t the world be such a better place? And if you feel like playing the Qanun, or the Violin, or the Ukulele, or you know, whatever instrument, just be yourself and be happy because that is the meaning of life. For me, I always dream very big and just go wild with my dreams and wait for the journey to unfold in beautiful ways.

AF: Is there any advice someone gave you, or something you learnt the hard way, that you would pass on to anyone who is aspiring to do similar things in life?

MY: Never give up. Especially in those moments when you feel like you’re really stuck, and you want to opt out. If you feel deep in your heart and your soul that you need to continue, don’t give up. Keep going.

To see her captivate an audience live, get your tickets to her performance at the Gulbenkian on the 27th of November 2019. It’s a night guaranteed to leave you feeling immense joy, genuine human connection, and moved in more ways than you’d think.