Hailed as the ‘queen of the qanun’ — the 78-stringed Middle Eastern plucked zither —.Damascus born Maya Youssef is a globally renowned, innovative and genre-defying musician.
Since arriving in London in 2012, Maya has pushed the boundaries of the instrument and performed at the Southbank Centre, BBC
Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Barbican, Shakespeare Globe and WOMAD Festival.
Ahead of the release of her second album Finding Home, a journey through loss, transcendence, and magic in the search for home, Maya is premiering Samai of Trees exclusively with M Magazine.
You can listen to the track, and find out what Maya has to say about it's inception, below.
M Magazine: Can you tell us a little bit about where the inspiration for your new single Samai of Trees comes from?
Maya Youssef: I always wanted to write a samai, an ancient form of Arabic music that is built on a slow 10/8 rhythm. I noticed that when I was writing I was either looking at trees or sitting under a tree in my back garden, so I called it Samai of Trees. It's a tribute to these ancient guardians of the earth who give so much healing and comfort in these challenging times.
What is it about the style of Samai music that has drawn you to making a song in that style?
For two reasons. 1. I knew that writing in a classical Arabic Music form such as the Samai would be a challenge for me as a composer. The rhythm needs to fit the melody like a glove. This needs to be achieved with delicately, allowing musical phrases to breath and the maqam (the mode) to simmer in the ear of the listener. 2. The rhythm, slow and meditative, always puts me into a grounded content state — as if I am smiling from the inside.
Your album deals in the spiritual need for a ‘home,’ what does that sense of home mean to you?
If you asked me what ‘home’ was before the war, I would have said Syria. With the loss of the Syria I knew — which I was never able to say goodbye to and with the intense pain that came with that — home now transcends a place to become a state. Home is where you feel seen, found, held and at peace. It’s that place of truth and healing in the most spiritual sense. To me, it manifests in different ways; in loved ones and earth angels who do random acts of kindness, in nature, in the small things that bring us back to our centre, and in our connection to the infinite. Syria will always be home, it is in my blood and bones, it is who I am. Now, my sense of home has expanded. The earth is my home. Humanity is my home.
Much of the record was written in a period of intense darkness, for you personally and for the wider world. What sort of thing did you do to cope with all the recent events and continue making beautiful music?
I started writing music when the war started back home. In 2012, I saw an image of a small girl, as little as my son, dying in her bedroom in Damascus. At that moment, I held the qanun and music started gushing out. From that point, music became my way to grieve, to remember, to heal and to ‘go home’. What happened to me and around me in the last years, steered me back to that place where I had to write to keep on going, to go to the darkest parts of my pain, to find healing, and funnily enough joy and, hopefully, share this healing and joy with others.
What is the ‘qanun’ instrument like to play, and what does it add to the texture of your music?
To me, playing the qanun is a full body experience. When I play, every cell vibrates with life and I feel completely at home. As an instrument, the qanun is such a powerful yet tender instrument. It has the light and the dark, the softness and the harshness and everything in between. I am always in a state of discovery and awe at the colours and the textures it can produce. It cries, whispers, flirts, roars, and carries you to places you go when you dream or meditate.
How was it working with Opera North and The British Museum for this album?
It was an absolute dream. Working with a phenomenal quartet from Opera North’s orchestra added such depth and delicate beauty and joy to the music. I was initially commissioned by Opera North to write a lullaby to contribute towards their lullaby project and I was beyond grateful when they agreed to be guests on two other tracks on the album. Composing music for the first time in response to paintings by very well-known, modern, Middle Eastern artists at the exhibition Reflections at the British Museum was an immensely rewarding experience. I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to collaborate and create with both and for their generosity in supporting the Finding Home album.
You wrote Silver Lining from an Opera North commission, what was it about walking in nature that drew you to that?
I have always spoken to plants and animals as if I am talking to friends ever since I was a child. I am not the first to say that there is nothing like a walk in nature to help one heal. Even though I was writing from a dark place in my life, I kept holding onto that silver lining of hope. Nature is buzzing with hope and Silver Lining was a reminder to myself to never lose that hope.
You’re working to help musicians from refugee communities, can you tell us about how you became involved in that work?
It all started with my work with Oily Cart. They are an amazing theatre company who work with children with special needs. I co-composed the music for a show, along with the wonderful Max Reinhardt, and toured it across schools and venues in the UK. It was at that time, the war broke out back home, and I felt the urgent need to do something. When I saw the magical effects Oily Cart’s shows had on children, I wanted to bring some of that magic to refugee children. That’s when I created my project The Seven Gates of Damascus a seven-part interactive musical performance and story-telling workshop. This then grew to school visits targeting schools with a high percentage of refugees, supporting refugee musicians, reserving tickets to refugee communities in each city, and overall making the refugee communities a central part of the Finding Home tour.