Maya Youssef's album "Finding Home"
Music as a place of hope

"Finding Home", the second album by Syrian-born, UK-based musician Maya Youssef, works through feelings of loss and destruction until its music reaches a place beyond war and violence. By Stefan Franzen  

The qanun embodies the filigree-light side of Middle-Eastern music like no other instrument. It is technically classed as a type of box zither, but if you close your eyes and listen to its tone, you are forced to wonder: "Is that what a zither sounds like?" In fact, with its wealth of strings (78 in total), the sound of the qanun is more reminiscent of the tripping notes of a harp.

But unlike the harp in European classical music, qanun playing was long a field dominated by men; it was considered unseemly for girls to learn the instrument. It is only now that the art has begun to be opened up to women, and Syrian player Maya Youssef, who lives in the UK, has played a crucial part in the sphere of the qanun becoming a feminine sphere as well.
Maya Youssef began to attract attention four years ago with her debut album Syrian Dreams. It presented the qanun as part of a chamber-music ensemble, with cello and percussion. Syrian Dreams is simultaneously a virtuosic and wistful album, which in part presents a musical response to the war in Syria. Maya Youssef is convinced that music can heal wounds and alleviate trauma. Since the start of the war in Syria, Youssef has been not only an interpreter of other people's work, but a composer too; anger and despair prompted her to start creating her own music. In wartime, she says, music has been "a crucial means to express and come to terms with intense feelings of loss and sadness from seeing my people suffer and my homeland destroyed". This conviction is something she expresses not just verbally or on paper, as her concerts and theatre work with child refugees from Syria attest.

Music as a place of peace and tenderness

On Finding Home, Maya Youssef is turning her work for peace into melody: "The music moves through loss, transcendence and magic, with a final arrival in a hopeful place," she writes in the liner notes. Home for her – in times of global movements of refugees and acts of war – doesn't necessarily mean a geographical place; it is more a spiritual and emotional home, a (sometimes imaginary) place of peace and tenderness. People can provide a home, and so can the natural world. It is important to bear in mind that a Syrian home, as millions of people knew it, will never return. Many Syrians have lost a home without even having a chance to say goodbye. And the same is now true for millions of Ukrainians, meaning that Finding Home is doubly, painfully relevant in today's world.
An expanded chamber ensemble assists Maya Youssef in exploring this theme. The ensemble includes the Italian jazz bassist Mikele Montolli, who has proved himself in various groups, playing everything from world music to avant-garde. The musical territory covered by British pianist Al MacSween extends from the Latin genre to India. Cellist Shirley Smart has a similar range, from classical to jazz and world music, while percussionist Elizabeth Nott has also ventured into the worlds of film and theatre.
Youssef constructs music from experiences of pain in some very different ways: the photo of a mother carrying her child through a hail of bombs is transformed into a dignified, improvisation that conjures up the image of a mother gently cradling and singing to her child, accompanied by violins that almost whisper. "In My Mother's Sweet Embrace" is also a moving contemplation of her mother's own absence, a track in which a calm, measured melody is spanned by an arc of melancholy, melismatic song. In "Jasmine Bayati" she expresses her longing for her home city of Damascus, the symbol of which is jasmine, with a dance-like exuberance.  

Here, the groove is also driven by a soulful, pumping organ. She has poured the dark time of lockdown into the peaceful melody of "Silver Lining". Its brief, "dripping" riffs finally flow into a section of improvisation, which builds to a whirling excitement that speaks of a new, rebellious will to live.

Maya Youssef playing the qanun (photo: Sarah Ginn)
Maya Youssef says that in wartime, music has been "a crucial means to express and come to terms with intense feelings of loss and sadness from seeing my people suffer and my homeland destroyed"

Arab sources meet Western jazz

It soon becomes obvious that Maya Youssef has moved away from a musical language that could be called wholly "Middle-Eastern". The nine compositions come from a free imagination that is fed both by Arab sources and Western jazz. The latter also owes something to popular music. And so – just occasionally – this language can fall into a repetitive, pleasing pattern, as in "An Invitation To Daydream", which is inspired by the delicate, two-dimensional paintings of the Lebanese painter Huguette Caland.

In the circling, ballad-like "Walk With Me", Youssef plays with the dialogue between qanun and string quartet. And "My Homeland", a hymn of praise to Syria, which is at the same time a lament, almost has the potential to become a pop ballad thanks to the catchy but plaintive piano bassline.

Some of the most convincing elements of this album are the passages in which Maya Youssef draws on traditional Arab forms, but gives them a new setting: "Samai Of Trees", for instance, is written in a strict 10/8 rhythm. The qanun dances almost weightlessly over the top of cello, bass and frame drum, with exuberant, melodic virtuosity.

The master-stroke on this album is "Soul Fever", another track inspired by a work of art. Samira Abbasy's "Unravelling", a charcoal portrait of a regal, female figure referencing the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum, provides the starting point for the track, which builds dramatically, carried along by a fiery, erotic tension.

From war and being uprooted to a different feeling of home; from pandemic and lockdown to a new vigour: Finding Home is an often cathartic journey into an uncertain tomorrow filled with challenges. Harrowing and galvanizing, it also offers tenderness and comfort.

Stefan Franzen

© 2022

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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