One day when she was nine years old, Maya Youssef was on her way to the Institute of Music in her hometown of Damascus. She was reluctantly studying the violin, but a beautiful sound was drifting through the air from a nearby taxi, and it stopped her in her tracks – it was the sound of the qanun, a 78-stringed Middle Eastern plucked zither. Its distinctive sound instantly resonated with Youssef, but the taxi driver laughed when she told him she wanted to learn how to play the instrument. “Girls don’t play qanun.” This was a man’s instrument played only by men. But not anymore.
Now based in the UK, Youssef is hailed as the ‘queen of the qanun’, and has performed at the BBC Proms alongside Damon Albarn, been commissioned by the British Museum and worked with everyone from Africa Express to The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians. Youssef’s debut album, Syrian Dreams, demonstrated the range and power of both her playing and her instrument, with compositions rooted in the Arabic classical tradition but forging pathways into jazz, Western classical and flamenco styles. By turns sorrowful and hopeful, its 10 tracks offered up a “personal journey through the six years of war in Syria” while exploring the healing qualities of music as a “prayer for peace”.
Earlier this year, Youssef released her second album, Finding Home, and it’s even more powerful than her debut. A “spiritual search for what means home”, Youssef’s deeply evocative soundworld bridges east and west, with the qanun accompanied by everything from acoustic bass and percussion to cello, keyboards, strings, even some electronic elements. As always, though, it’s Youssef’s impassioned qanun playing that shines the most brightly as she explores the full possibilities of her instrument, her performances more intoxicating than ever.
To hear her do this on stage will be quite something as she heads out on a full album tour across the UK and beyond. At the RNCM on 11 June, she’ll be performing her new album in a quintet format, joined by the Levare String Quartet, who, founded at the College in 2017, are rapidly establishing themselves as a leading student chamber group in the UK.
It’s sure to be a highlight of the RNCM’s packed Summer Season, and unlike anything you’re likely to hear in Manchester anytime soon.