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Finding Home with Maya Youssef

Internationally renowned composer and musician Maya Youssef brings her Finding Home tour to the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 20 June, for a very special World Refugee Day celebration.

Born in Damascus, Maya left Syria as a result of war in 2012 and came to the UK. Her ground-breaking work with the qanun (a middle-eastern instrument traditionally played only by men) has since seen her perform at venues from the Royal Albert Hall to WOMAD festival and collaborate with musicians including Damon Albarn (Gorillaz, Blur) and classical guitarist Craig Ogden.

We caught up with Maya ahead of the concert to find out more about her music, her story and what to expect on the evening.

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You’ve called making music ‘a life and hope affirming act’. Could you describe what music means to you and the role you see it playing in the world?

I started my journey with music at a very young age, and I thought one day it would be nice to write. But then the war started and I had to write, because I was losing my sanity. I was seeing the people that I loved dying – a lot of them at the same time – seeing some of the places I grew up visiting being destroyed and, you know, dealing with the thought that I will never see my loved ones and never see home again… So it was very, very intense and very emotional.

There was a key moment when I was watching the news in 2012; there was an image of a small girl who looked very much like my son, who was tiny at the time. But she had died in her bedroom in Damascus. And in that moment, I just held the qanun and music started to come out. I was half-crying, half-playing and… I don’t know, it was almost like an out-of-body experience. From that moment the music became my lifeline, and it became my prayer.

So music is also my spiritual practice. It’s a sacred thing to do for me because I pray before I play anything, before I write anything. So this is how I relate to music and I believe it’s very powerful, because in this mad, mad world that we’re living in we need to soften, we need to do a lot of softening, my goodness. And music has this ability to go straight into the heart and just part all the barriers and make us feel connected without words, which is very, very powerful and it’s very needed at this time.

British-Syrian composer and musician, Maya Youssef

Music’s clearly such a personal thing to you, but you also see it as having a transformative role in the world. How does it feel to take something that’s so deeply personal and share it with an audience?

When I started writing music, the thought of putting it out in the world was terrifying. You know, I discovered later on that there’s something called vulnerability hangover and I was literally in bed with a fever. I had a very intense series of vulnerability hangovers, but then at the end of the day I thought it’s just not about me. And the minute you make it about you, you start to think ‘Oh my God’, you start to freak out. But when you view it as an offering, as about helping others – then you start to see your little worries as insignificant and you just do it despite the fear.

Your concert is called Finding Home, after your album. Could you tell us about the album and what audiences can expect from the show?

The album Finding Home is about finding that feeling of home. Of course, Syria is always home – but it’s also very empowering, beautiful and sacred for anybody to access a state of home, no matter where they are. And we access it as human in the smallest of ways – being in nature, being with loved ones, being with kindred spirits (who I call earth angels). It’s all about accessing that state of peace and calm, where everything is OK and basically the world is well.

In terms of what to expect from the concert, I’m a storyteller, so I’ll tell you the story behind every piece of music. I know many of the audience members may not know much about me, my world, the context in which I make music. So I think it’s really lovely to give them a window into my process and the places and people that inspire my music. With music I know sometimes people like to have a category – “OK, you’re going to listen to Arab chamber music”, you know, it’s like they put you in a musical box. Which is fine, it can be helpful. But really, if you want to connect to your humanity and access a state of peace and calm and be moved, then come and join us at the concert. That’s my prayer. And if I can achieve that in the tiniest of ways then I will have done my job.

'Queen of the qanun', Maya Youssef

You are known as ‘queen of the qanun’. Could you tell us about the instrument and how you got into playing it?

The qanun is a 78-stringed, plucked zither that originates from the Arab world. It’s an ancient instrument – the earliest form of it found is from the 4th Century BC – that sits at the heart of Arabic music. And even though it originates from that region and that ancient tradition that goes back thousands and thousands of years, I use it in new ways. I like to think of myself as a tree, with my roots deep into the earth of a tradition that goes back thousands of years. But my branches are free to explore different musical possibilities. So, it’s both rooted and exploratory at the same time.

And how I got into it… the qanun called to me. When I was little and growing up in Syria I was tapping and singing all the time, so my parents enrolled me in a music institute. After the first two years of intense training, the moment came to choose my musical instrument. My parents suggested the violin and I took a couple of lessons, but I never felt connected to it. Then one day I was heading to the music institute with my mum in the back seat of a taxi. The taxi driver turned on the radio and there came the sound of the qanun and I think I’d heard it before, but never in isolation. It felt like it spoke immediately to my heart and in that moment I was like “what is this instrument? This is an instrument that I want to play!” And the taxi driver cracked a loud laugh, saying “you’re a girl! This instrument is for men, that will never happen!”

You clearly proved him wrong!

Well, that very night, the Head of the institute walked into my music theory class, announcing there is a new class for qanun. And I ran and signed up and my mum was waiting outside – she was like “what did you just do?!” She was just baffled. But still, my parents returned the violin and two days later I had a second hand qanun ten times my size, waiting on the coffee table.

I was the only girl in my qanun class, but I was lucky because my parents were so incredibly supportive. If I hadn’t had them, I would probably have given up.

Your concert is a special celebration for World Refugee Day. Could you tell us about your work with refugees and the role music has played?

I did a lot of outreach work when we did the launch tour of Finding Home. We’d put on a concert and go and reach out to refugee families and invite them, but we’d also work with local schools with high populations of refugee children. It was amazing – it’s very important work, you know, because these are the nooks and crannies of society that are neglected. Some of the children I worked with were very vulnerable – some were unaccompanied, or very fragile because of their experiences. And you know, as a young person, if somebody hadn’t believed in me or invested time in me, nurturing me musically in the smallest of ways… I wouldn’t be here. So these encounters, even though they are brief, they are very important. And I’m just a random girl from Syria and it’s important for these children to see that, to see anything is possible. To me it’s a matter of me trying to tell them my story, how I was told I couldn’t even dream of what I wanted to do, yet here I am today.

As well as that I do lots of musical exploration with them, which is so, so deeply important – I always love doing that. And I see my music as one continuum; whether I’m teaching, whether I’m doing a workshop for children in a school somewhere, or whether I’m on stage, it’s the same thing, to me at least. I pray for whatever healing peace to come through and I don’t know what effect it has because I don’t see them again – but I believe in the power of intention and even if it’s just a tiny drop in the ocean, then that’s amazing. I’d love to do more, when the time allows and when the opportunity comes.


Maya Youssef: Finding Home comes to the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 20 June at 7.45pm. Maya is supported by Thandanani (Thanda) Gumede, an award-winning vocalist and multi-disciplinary artist from Durban, South Africa. Thanda is of dual Zulu and Xhosa heritage and his name means ‘Love one another’.

Tickets for the concert are selling on a Pay What You Can basis, with refugees and asylum seekers invited to attend free of charge.

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In 2018, Opera North became the first opera company in the UK to be awarded Theatre of Sanctuary status. The accolade recognises the steps being taken by organisations to ensure refugees and those seeking sanctuary in the city feel included, valued and celebrated through increased accessibility to the arts.



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