Friday 5 May 2023

Meditating, listening & letting the music unfold: Syrian composer & musician Maya Youssef on the inspirations behind her music

Maya Youssef
Maya Youssef

The Syrian composer and musician Maya Youssef released her second album, Finding Home, last year. Now based in the UK, the loss of her Syrian homeland is a subject that imbues both the new album and her first album, Syrian Dreams. Maya and I had plans to meet up last year, but these never managed to come to fruition so it was with great delight that we finally managed to meet for coffee in London in April 2023 to talk about the inspirations behind her albums, the idea of finding home, the importance of teaching, explaining the Arabic system of modes using Lego and much more.

The qanun is her instrument, this is a 78-stringed instrument from the zither family, and she plays the strings with her fingers. Her index fingers have rings and plectrums on them, which makes for a more resonant sound, but she plays with all her fingers in a manner akin to a harp. 

She describes her music as Arabic chamber music, but she grew up in Damascus surrounded by lots of different music. Her father was a writer who wanted to be a musician but unfortunately, he was tone deaf, so he collected records, and growing up there was Western classical, jazz, fusion and other weird combinations for her to listen to. She studied at the conservatoire for children, and both there and at high school both Western classical and Arabic classical music were studied. When she graduated from high school she played Vivaldi's Winter from The Four Seasons.

But the music she creates is forging a path of its own. Arabs listen to it and recognise its Arabic roots, but it is different, the way she uses the Arabic modal system, maqam, is all her own. Finding Home features collaborations with musicians from different backgrounds. One track, Silver Lining, features a string quartet (players from the orchestra of Opera North). For this, the music had to be fully notated (she worked with an orchestrator). The album was supported by Opera North, and she had a day to rehearse and record the track, which meant that she had to be efficient and have everything notated. She enjoyed the collaboration and would like to do it again. She feels that the combination of qanun and strings is a natural one, it felt natural to be in that sonic space, and she would like to try working with a group of strings rather than just a quartet. The qanun is not an exceptionally loud instrument so such collaborations would usually involve some amplification.

Maya Youssef
Maya Youssef
But for the rest of the album, there was no score, she simply sent sound files to the musicians. Freedom and improvisation are an essential part of her art, she never plays a piece the same way twice; with each performance, you respond to the melody in different ways with different ornamentations. But that is not to say that the music on the album is purely Arabic, as only one of the musicians working with her was Arabic. She describes pianist Al McSween as a musical chameleon playing Indian classical, jazz and contemporary music, Elizabeth Nott, percussion, is Venezuelan and plays both music from her native country and Arabic music, Mikele Montolli, double bass, plays mainly jazz, Hamsa Mounif is a classical Arabic singer, whilst Shirley Smart, cello, works at the conservatoire in Jerusalem. The idea was that each performer brought their own flavour and tradition to the mix. 

For the disc, Maya sent the performers audio tracks, some of the tracks were scored but in all, there was scope for improvisation, and developing the music was a conversation between them during rehearsals.

Originally, for Maya, home was a place, Syria, and her first album, Syrian Dreams, was about the loss of this home. The second album, Finding Home, is about her spiritual journey since then. For her, now, home is a state, not a place; home is wherever you find a state of peace and calm. So, the disc explores how you find home.

So, there is finding home in nature, with Silver Lining about finding solace in nature and Samai of Trees being a tribute to trees. There is some grief too about the loss of home, and one track she describes as simply falling into her laptop, it made itself completely clear. It is the only track on the album that does not use original material, instead, it is based on a well-known tune, My Homeland, which has become a lament for a lost world. Jasmin Bayati: To An Earth Angel is about gratitude for finding a home with warm-hearted people; she describes the track as the funkiest she has written and people want to dance to it. There are two tracks about mothers, In My Mother's Sweet Embrace is about missing her mother whilst Lullaby: A Promise of a Rainbow is inspired by an image of a mother holding her baby with a bomb blast happening behind. Each of the tracks explores how Maya responds to that spiritual home.

Some of the tracks on the album are inspired by paintings by Arab artists on themes of war and identity, so the disc has several different collaborations on it. She was inspired by a British Museum exhibition of Arabic artists and was able to visit the exhibition during lockdown and play the qanun in the exhibition space, then flesh out the ideas afterwards.

When writing she is in a constant state of prayer and describes the music as an offering to God. It is not about her, she is just a vessel and she hopes the album brings the listener to a state of peace. She writes by meditating, listening and letting the music unfold, the magic just happens. She feels that the wall between her and the spirit world becomes thin at these moments, and admits that it is not a logical process, but adds that she is highly logical when it comes to the subsequent editorial process.

During the album tour last year, Maya did a lot of work with Syrian refugee communities and this is something she is continuing. Last year they did schools workshops and tried to engage with Syrian refugee communities in as many ways as possible. For the album launch event, they had a Syrian cultural sharing in the foyer. Most of the places that she plays are centres of Western classical music and are very different to how music is experienced in Syria. She wants to break down the barriers and encourage people to make music differently.

She was always going to be a musician. She studied music when quite young and at the junior conservatoire had to pick a musical instrument. Her parents suggested a violin, she wasn't keen, but went along with it. Then one hot Summer's day she and her mother were in a taxi when the driver switched on the radio and she heard a solo qanun and fell in love. The taxi driver laughed, telling her it was only an instrument for men, but at her conservatoire, a qanun class was announced and she signed up. She replaced her violin with a qanun that was, at the time, twice her size.

Whilst historically there have been women qanun players, nowadays the vast majority of players are men and there are even fewer professional women players, so even by playing the qanun, Maya can be seen as a bit radical.

Finding Home: Maya Youssef

This year she is devoting time to exploring and recording as she wrote rather a lot of music in 2022. She was commissioned by Leighton House to write a work inspired by the house as part of the house's reopening. She refers to the irresistible charm of old Damascene houses, stepping into a place of magic. And she found the Arab Hall at Leighton House a bit like a slice of Damascus so her new piece was a love letter to those old Damascene houses (and she was last in Syria in 2010). For this piece, she worked with a choir for the first time. And there are plans to record and release the work this year.

She also worked with Dandelion, a six-month creative celebration of growing, music and community in Scotland during 2022. This involved schools using grow cubes to grow plants, but the cubes also toured as unique sound/light installations, with 13 specially commissioned pieces of music. Four of the cubes visited 17 urban and rural locations touring on the back of specially-built cargo bicycles. Maya wrote music for this, it was premiered with the installations and still lives in the cubes in the recipient schools. The music for the Dandelion project is also going to be released in 2023, and she is also remixing older material.

She is also focusing on her teaching, which she does online, and is keen to pass her knowledge on. Arabic classical music is an oral tradition, you seek out a mentor, listen to the mentor and copy them. This model worked in the 18th and 19th centuries but is less suitable for today's world. Maya is also passionate about de-mystifying Arabic music. This year she is collaborating with Leighton House and the Arab British Centre in a programme to teach maqam (the Arabic system of modes) using Lego!

She feels that there is a huge gap in the teaching of Arabic music, and thanks to the internet she teaches students from around the globe. In Arabic music, there is very much a separation between practice and theory, and this latter exists in what Maya describes as a bubble of its own, almost unrelated to practice. In teaching, she is very hands-on and whilst not being simplistic she presents the teaching in a way that anyone can understand (hence the Lego).

Maya Youssef (Image from Songlines)
Maya Youssef (Image from Songlines)

When we met, she had just played at the Royal Albert Hall in a gala to raise funds for the victims of the Syrian earthquake, and an Autumn tour is going to be announced. She comments that everything is cyclical and she likes that, there is downtime, writing, recording then touring, and this cycle feels natural to her.

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