Events Archive

Maya Youssef

Sat 23 February, 8:00pm

Visual Arts Associated Event

From Syria, speaker, composer and virtuoso of the qānūn disseminates peace through the healing power of music.  

One day, aged 9, on her way to the music institute where she was reluctantly studying the violin, the taxi driver was playing a recording of an instrument that blew her mind – it was the qanun. When she told him she was determined to learn it his reply shocked her, but kindled a flame: he told her girls did not play the qānūn; it was a man’s instrument played only by men. He laughed at her when she told him she would learn to play it. Now, Damascus born Maya Youssef is hailed as “queen of the  qānūn”, the 78 stringed Middle Eastern plucked zither. She moved to London under the Arts Council’s “exceptional talent” scheme and has played at the Proms and alongside Damon Albarn. When the war started in Syria, writing music was “no longer a choice” and that was the birth of her highly acclaimed debut album Syrian Dreams (produced by the legendary Joe Boyd). For Maya the act of playing music is the opposite of death; it is a life and hope affirming act. For her, music is a healer and an antidote to what is happening not only in Syria, but in the whole world.

The qānūn is a trapezoidal shaped plucked zither used widely in the Middle East and especially in the Arab world and Turkey. The word qānūn translates as (the law). The reason behind this appellation is that the qānūn is the only musical instrument in the oriental takht (traditional Arabic ensemble) that can play all the notes of Arabic scales on open strings. Secondly, the rest of the ensemble depends on the qānūn for setting the pitch and tuning. It is not only regarded as one of the central instruments in the traditional Arabic ensemble, but also the equivalent of the piano according to texts in early 20th century Arab music theory. Across the Arab world the instrument is almost exclusively played by men, except for rare exceptions where the instrument is played by women such as Maya. 

What the critics say:

BBC Arabic TV

 “an Icon”
Eye of Celebrities Magazine


 BBC Radio 3, Late Junction