Music for Music: Maya Youssef
Maya Youssef with qanun; photo credit: Nick White
Home Within: Maya Youssef
By Dan Ursini
To anyone familiar with the music of Maya Youssef, it is no surprise that her first album was produced by Joe Boyd, whose credentials include such musical pioneers as Pink Floyd and R.E.M. Youssef does adventurous work with an instrument few would associate with the cutting edge; but, of course, the element of surprise is a defining component of a genuine cutting edge. She plays the qanun—a 78-string trapezoidal lap instrument whose origins trace back to ancient Assyria around 1900 BC. Youssef’s newly released album, Finding Home, was produced by Leo Abrahams, who has worked with such innovators as Brian Eno and Imogen Heap.
The qanun is a mainstay of Classical Arabic music, the dominant genre of Youssef’s work. Finding Home sparkles with celebratory strength—an assertion of the human spirit in devastating circumstances The album is also energized by Classical Western, Latin, and other musical influences that Youssef has seamlessly merged.
Maya Youssef was born and raised in Damascus, Syria, during a period of cultural rebirth. While very young, she became enchanted by the qanun; her devotion to it became a defining element of her life. When Youssef moved for a time to the United Arab Emirates, she practiced the qanun twelve hours a day.
Later she moved to the UK, settling in London. By then, Syria had been ripped apart by war. Youssef had been playing the qanun for years but had never written any music. The inner struggle to deal with the destruction of her homeland released unexpected compositional gifts. Youssef shares, “It wasn’t a choice really. There was a dark and heavy grief looming over my soul. A part of me wanted to give up—but looking at the face of my son, I couldn’t. I desperately needed a way to transmute that pain. I remember hearing a voice in my head: ‘Do something or perish.’ The way out of that storm was through writing. It became my way to cry and to heal. I consider myself lucky to have music, my qanun, and the grace of God. I wouldn’t have made it otherwise.”
Finding Home celebrates the heartfelt pleasures and fulfillments of home life: daydreams, walks with a companion, a favorite tree, a mother’s love. The songs are filled with melodies alive with drama and energy. The album’s opening track, “An Invitation to Daydream,” begins with a relaxed solo by Youssef. With great verve, she then shifts into an expansive section with rolling rhythms, trading captivating solos with World/Jazz pianist Al MacSween.
The only vocal on the album is “In My Mother’s Sweet Embrace.” Hamsa Mounif’s singing tenderly conveys profound yearning. Youssef explains, “The biggest theme in Arabic classical music is longing—whether you long to be in the arms of the human or the cosmic beloved—or longing to be in a place that feels like home.”
Youssef wrote and arranged each of the ten tracks. And she pours herself into her performances, generating spontaneous peppery interplay with the other musicians, especially on “Jasmin Bayati.” They include keyboard player MacSween, percussionist Elizabeth Nott, bass player Mikele Montolli, and cellist Shirley Smart.
A strong energy flows through Finding Home. Even pensive songs like “Walk with Me” carry a resolute quality.
To Maya Youssef, music and the spirit are one: “I feel I have integrated my musical practice with my spiritual practice to the point where they are both part of one continuum. Before I write music or play on stage, I pray that God, the universe—whatever you wish to call it—makes me an instrument for his/her peace.” Youssef continues, “My commitment to transmute heavy events and bring joy and peace through music is a personal one. However, I am not the first. Many Sufi sages long before me had a conversation with the Divine through music . . . to bring the ultimate sense of home: peace through unity with God.”
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication. In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, has had two staged readings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org