Virtuoso Syrian artist Maya Youssef will be performing a selection of music from her new album Syrian Dreams on Saturday 10 February. We spoke to her about her love of music, the inspiration behind her new music, and all about her instrument -the qanun. 

"writing music became my healing path and this album became my prayer"
Maya Youssef
  • What inspired you to get into music?

I grew up in a household full of books cassettes, CDs, and Vinyl and my father had a big eclectic music collection from Jazz, Western Classical, World, experimental fusion, and Arabic Classical music. When I was seven it was clear to my parents that I was a musical child so they enrolled me at Solhi al wadi Music Institute in Damascus and that's where it began.


  • Tell us a bit about the history of your incredible instrument- the qanun.

The qanun is a trapezoidal shaped plucked zither used widely in the Middle East and especially in the Arab world and Turkey. The word qanun translates as ‘the law’ (English canon law derives from this). The reason behind this appellation is that the qanun 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 qanun 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.


  • What was the main source of your inspiration behind your new album Syrian Dreams? 

Before the war in my country, I used to play music from the Arabic Classical and Syrian folk traditions as well as music from Turkey and Azerbaijan. The entire album is either about facing these terribly difficult emotions of grief and loss or about my memories of my homeland. When the war started, I felt I was going to explode. One day I heard of a small girl dying in her bedroom in Damascus. She was the same age of my son. I was in tears. I held my qanun and the title piece 'Syrian Dreams' gushed out of me. It was a prayer for peace. After that point writing music became my healing path and this album became my prayer. 


  • Are there any particular musical influences you used in the composition of the pieces?

All the music I heard as I grew up reflects itself somehow in my music; Philip Glass, J.S. Bach, João Gilberto, Buena Vista Social Club, Ravi Shankar, Miles Davis, Jan Garbarik, Fairouz, Aziza Mustafa Zadeh and so many more.

"To me, music is love. Syrian Dreams is a prayer for peace in Syria and the world."
Maya Youssef
  • What sort of message would you like your music to convey?

Several things I suppose. The beauty of vulnerability, the strength of the human spirit, the oneness of humanity and other things that I can't put into words and that only music can express.


  • What do you think we can learn about Syrian culture from your music?

It’s an ancient culture that goes back thousands and thousands of years. The first music transcription in history was found in Ugarit (northern Syria) which is recognised as the oldest surviving substantially complete work of notated music in the world.  I am a daughter of these ancestors and I still speak their 'language', but in my own way.


  • How would you say your relationship with music has changed throughout your career?

It dramatically changed when I started writing, which showed me an entirely new level of 'being' a musician. Also as I embraced my power I became more open as a person and as a musician. The qanun is a power instrument. If you ask me what type of power a qanun has I would say that it has the power of the rose. I am embracing that day by day.

"as I embraced my power I became more open as a person and as a musician"
Maya Youssef
  • How do you think Syrian cultural identity has changed in the last seven years, and how might it evolve into the future.

All conflicts result in an explosion of cultural expression. There has been so much output in theatre, music, TV, Cinema, literature since the war started. I see cultural expression in any discipline as the true voice of people's identity and as the truest documentation of what's happening now. On this basis, Syrians will continue the conversation into the future.


  • What does music mean to you? And what does Syrian Dreams mean to you?

To me music is love. Syrian Dreams is a prayer for peace in Syria and the world.


  • What are you excited about for the future?

I am excited to see where the project with refugee children would take me. I am looking forward to work with them in the UK and in Lebanon from late February. I also have some wonderful concerts to look forward to and a tour in September.


We can't wait to welcome Maya to the Wiltshire Music Centre soon, and to witness what is certain to be a unique cultural and musical experience! 

Book tickets now!