In Conversation with: Maya Youssef

Maya Youssef and Sophie Darling   @ WOMAD Festival 2017, Ecotricity Stage 28.07.17

Maya Youssef and Sophie Darling 

@ WOMAD Festival 2017, Ecotricity Stage 28.07.17


WOMAD Festival / Arabic Maqam / Qanun / Syria

WOMAD FESTIVAL 2017, Friday, Ecotricity Stage 3-4pm

‘Syrian Dreams’ Album Out NOW


Album Launch: Rich Mix 20.11.17

Maya Youssef took to the WOMAD Festival 2017 Ecotricity stage on the Friday 3:00-4:00pm and there played her unique Syrian music that rightfully has earned her the title ‘The Queen of the Qanun’ of which Maya is a virtuoso plucking the 72 stringed zither with practice, passion and class. 

In this interview Maya Youssef discusses how she came to graduate in both Arabic and Western classical traditions from the University of Damascus and since 2012, her journey to London, studying and later teaching at SOAS University, and what her new music means to her. 

“To me, music is a healer and an antidote to what’s happening, not only in Syria but in the whole world.” - Maya

Transporting back in time to seeing Maya Youssef play at WOMAD Festival, on stage accompanying Maya and her qanun were her trio, a fine set of simple percussion along side a standing bass. The audience, and myself were at the set where entranced, listening intently to everything that the lovely Maya had to say, and her versatile set, with emotional slow ballads, to more upbeat happy songs. 

The sound of the qanun is one of such intense beauty, and Maya Youssef plays it with such an intellectual spiritual familiarity. Having started to compose music only after the war broke out in her home country, Syria, Maya’s songs are a reflection of the all encompassing pain that she feels for her country, her people and the situation in Syria, and more so how it’s reflected around the world.

After an emotional, powerful set, I met Maya Yourself to catch up…. 

S.D: How did you enjoy the set? 

MY: I absolutely loved my set, I think that the people received it so beautifully, they interacted with it in an amazing way, and I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude by the end of it. 

SD: I noticed that a lot of the meanings behind the stories of your songs seemed to resonate with the audience, is this something you find at all your concerts? 

MY: Well the WOMAD audience certainly cheers with vigour, very loudly and proudly about the messages I was giving out. Maybe in other places they don't interact quiet as warmly, however I don’t mind, my excuse is that I feel that my songs are like seeds, and my hope is that they will grow later on. 

SD: You’re from Damascus I do believe; when did you come to London? 

MY: Indeed I am from Damascus, so at the end of 2011, I was presented with an amazing opportunity to apply for an ‘exceptional talents scheme’ in the UK in which I was selected for 300 artists from around the world to migrate to the UK, which was a real honour. At the time I was teaching at  Sultan Qaboos University so I wasn't in Syria as the university is in Muscat Oman. Although I was really thinking about going back home to Syria, but because of the war, I accepted this opportunity and I was very very grateful for it, and this is how I ended up being in the UK. So I ended up moving her in 2012, and it has been amazing ever since. 

SD: So is this a busy time for you with gigging in the summer and everything? 

MY: It has been really busy throughout July but then I have two weeks off. Then straight back in doing Edinburgh Festival, and then Shambala. After that I will have some time off, so I am looking forward to that, and on the 20th of November I will have my album launch for ‘Syrian Dreams’.

SD: For people that don’t know, can you tell me a little bit about you instrument the ‘quanun’? Visually, well what to say; there are so many strings! 

MY: Ahh yes, there are 78 strings, very specific, individually tuned. You see every three strings is one note, so I tune each three strings to be one note. It covers about three and a half octaves, and has a wonderfully large range of sound. It also has the strings tied on both ends with metallic leavers on the sides. These play the role of black keys on the piano, and these allow me to modulate, and change the pitches. Finally the quanun translated into Arabic means ‘the law’, so it is called this way because basically the other instruments are tuned to the pitch of the quanun, and also traditionally a quanun player was the leader of the ensemble. So it is one of the main instruments of Arabic classical music. 

SD: It sounds fabulously gorgeous. As it’s an Arabic instrument can we assume that is uses the ‘maqam’ scales? 

MY: Oh yes, correct. 

SD: In which case, when did you start to learn the maqam scales, and how long did it take you to learn them? 

MY: Firstly, the maqam scales are what the majority of Arabic music is based upon, and it has eight notes for every one western note. I learned from my teacher firstly aurally, and also had to learn on my own too, but when I had to start to teach it, I really felt the need to delve very deeply back into the scales and the hole maqam system of scales. 

So that was in Demascus when I was about eight and half/ nine, and I was heading to the city with my mother and the taxi driver was playpen a recording of the quanun. I was amazed, I needed to know what it was I said “wow, what is it, I want to play it”, to which the taxi driver laughed at me and said “no, this is an instrument played by men, you are a girl, just forget about it”, he was so harsh. I really should thank him, for he re-kindled the fire within me and I told him “yes” I will play the quanun. Then it became really crazy, because the very same night, in my site reading class, the head of the institute walks in and says “qanun class is open for registration, anybody?”. So without hesitation of corse, I went along to the class. My mother asked what she was to do with the violin they had brought me, and I said I didn’t care about the violin, and said they could send it away. Which they did, then within three days they had brought me a second hand qanun.

SD: Wonderful, so it sounds as though you had really encouraging parents? Are they musical? 

MY: They are so supportive, really amazing. My father has a huge collection of music, but neither of them play any musical instruments. 

SD: I am aware that with other zithers of a similar family to your quanun the skill is taught in a master to student way only. Is this how you were taught? 

MY: Yes, absolutely, I studied with many masters, and had many ideas from them. Such as the idea of cosmologies; which is connecting scales to a certain time of the day, or too a certain colour. Then there are also two Turkish players I learned with, and I have been taught amazing techniques of Turkish quanun playing from them, I used all their knowledge and used elements of each to create something of my own.

SD: How long had you been playing before you thought that you had managed to put your own spin on the instrument and had created your own music? 

MY: I started writing my own music after the war. You see before the war, they hadn’t come to me, I was happy to perform different repertoires, classical, western, therefore the need to compose had never come to me to. However after the war started, I felt I could either write music, or explode.

SD:Would you go back to Syria? 

MY: Obviously its very dangerous to go there now so I can’t, but I do have family there. So I’m going to have to hope that this war will end very soon, so that I can go and visit my family. 

SD: I noticed that your personal politics and beliefs are in your compositions, is this something that you think is helping? Are you trying to spread a message? 

MY: I think I live in alignment with my beliefs, so when I say that I am hoping to spread a message of love and peace, I live it. I think that’s what the worlds needs really, and its’s very simple. By focusing your attention you can just change things. It’s really amazing, because we are so used to giving away our power, thinking, oh no, the news is awful, we can’t do anything, the world is collapsing. Actually you are way more powerful than that, we must focus our energy on peace. We just created some unseen ripple of energy that no-one can see. 

SD:Now tell me, can we expect an album soon? 

MY: Yes! We will be launching in November, in London and Paris. Very exciting. 

SD: Wonderful I look forward to it! Now my last question for you is this; Do you have any pre/post gig rituals? 

MY: I pray. Simply pray with my eyes closed connecting with my breath. 



Maya Youssef is launching her album 20th of November, at the Rich Mix ‘Syrian Dreams’ 


Maya Youssef set at WOMAD 2017:

Maya Youssef website:

WOMAD Festival Website:

Tickets for Maya Album Launch: