Breakthrough: an interview with Maya Youssef

Breakthrough: an interview with Maya Youssef

What is the kanun?

The kanun is a traditional Syrian 78-stringed plucked zither. This instrument is also found throughout the rest of the Arab world and in Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, where it exists in slightly different forms. The Arabic word kanun translates as the ‘law. The reason behind this is that the kanun usually sets the pitch in traditional ensembles as well as leading it in some cases.

How did you start playing the kanun?

I started studying music aged 7. When I was 9 years old, it was time to choose an instrument. My family bought me a violin, which I reluctantly agreed to learn. One day, as I was on my way to the music institute with my mother, our taxi driver started playing a recording of an enchanting instrument that instantly captivated me. It was the kanun! I asked the taxi driver what instrument we were listening to and told him that I was determined to learn it. His reply shocked me but also kindled a flame within me. He told me I was a girl and girls just don't play kanun. This is a man’s instrument, he grinned, played only by men. He advised me to forget about it. I challenged him and said I would learn to play kanun. He laughed at me.

Later that same day, as I was sitting in my solfeggio (pitch and sight-singing) class, the head of the institute walked in and announced that the kanun class was open for enrolment. I immediately enrolled, with the full support of my parents, who then replaced the violin they had bought for me with a kanun.

As a composer as well as a performer can you describe your creative process in creating a new piece?

I would describe it as a process of deep listening to my internal voices. Sometimes a melody comes to me after meditation, another time while I am walking in the street or when I am in nature. I usually hear the main melody in my head and then begin to ‘dress’ it with other musical layers.

What's your favorite piece to perform?

This changes all the time. Currently, my favorite piece to play is Breakthrough. It is an invitation to breakthrough from fear to love in difficult times. 

Can you describe your experience of music education in Syria and the UK?

From 1997-2003, I studied music at Sulhi al-Wadi Institute in Damascus, Syria. Apart from studying my instrument, the kanun, I learned Western solfeggio (pitch and sight-reading) and harmony, and I studied rhythm. The course was tough as teachers expected very high standards. I continued studying to complete a BA in Music specialising in kanun at the High Institute of Music and Dramatic Arts in Damascus. Entry to this course was competitive and solely dependent on merit. It was an intense 5-year course during which, believe it or not, I learned mainly about Western music. I studied counterpoint, harmony, composition, Western music history, Arabic music theory (maqam), solfeggio (pitch and sight-reading), ensemble performance, choir singing and orchestra direction all on top of a demanding schedule for studying my instrument. Thanks to this versatile and rich background, I built an understanding of how my instrument can fit within any musical context whether I am playing with a symphony orchestra, a Korean taegum flute, or a West African kora harp.

In 2012 I moved to London to continue my studies. I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to do a Masters course in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London. That was drastically different to my studies in Syria, as it was more focused on the analysis of other musics rather than on performance. My time at SOAS was a mind-opening experience and gave me some important tools with which to understand how Western academia studies music of other cultures, including music of my own region.

On the other side of the coin, I have been teaching the kanun and the theory of Arabic music (maqam) for the past 15 years. This included 3 years of teaching as a full-time faculty member of the department of Music and Ethnomusicology at Sultan Qabous University in Muscat, Oman. I have also been teaching the kanun and directing the Middle Eastern ensemble at SOAS since 2012.

Can you share some of your plans for the future?

I am working on my debut album, which will include my original compositions for kanun and several instruments. I am immensely honoured that the fabled producer Joe Boyd, who worked for Warner Bros. and Pink Floyd, will be the executive producer of my album.  I will announce release dates on social media soon.

From spring 2017, I will be facilitating music workshops for Syrian refugee children in the UK and Lebanon as part of my PhD studies at SOAS. The aim of this project is to alleviate the unimaginable trauma suffered by Syrian refugee children.

Who are your musical inspirations?

Plenty of inspirations from all over the world have shaped my musical soundscape, but I will only mention those which will stay with me forever such as Sabah Fakhri, my late teacher Halil Karaduman, Jan Garbarik, Anoushka Shankar, Lebanese/French composer Toufic Farroukh, Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, Syrian composer Nouri Iskandar, and J. S. Bach.


Maya Youssef is a London-based Syrian virtuoso of the kanun, a traditional Syrian 78-stringed plucked zither. In 2012, Maya moved to London as part of Arts Council England’s ‘Exceptional Talent scheme where 300 artists are selected each year from around the world to migrate to the UK. Since then, she has been featured numerous times by the BBC and has performed at major UK festivals and venues like Union Chapel, Celtic Connections, and in the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. For Maya, the act of playing music is the opposite of death; it is a life and hope affirming act and an antidote to what is happening, not only in Syria, but in the entire world.

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