Maya Youssef describes the day that in a taxi to her violin lessons in Damascus, she heard the qanun for the first time on the radio. Nine year-old Youssef asked the taxi driver what instrument she was hearing and he replied that it was the qanun. She informed him that she was going to learn the instrument, to which he laughed and told her that girls don’t play the qanun. She is now hailed as one of the world’s foremost qanun players.
Youssef left Syria in 2007, well before the outbreak of the civil war. She initially went to Dubai to focus on her solo career, performing at top venues in the region. In 2009 she was invited to join the teaching staff at the Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, Oman. She then came to the UK on an ‘exceptional talent’ visa and has been based in London ever since.
The war started in my homeland in 2011. From that point on making music was no longer a choice, it was 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. Maya Youssef
The qanun is a large zither played across much of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Thought to date back as far as ancient Assyria, the qanun is believed to be descended from the Egyptian harp and is related to a number of stringed instruments of the region including the santur. There are regional differences in the design of the qanun, in particular the Arabic qanun is larger than the Turkish kanun.
The qanun is one of the key instruments of the takht, or traditional Arabic orchestra or ensemble, alongside the oud, ney, kamancheh, riq and darbuka. It is also often played as a solo instrument, perhaps comparable to the piano within Western classical music.
The name is shared with the Arabic word for law, قانون (qanun) and it may well have been given it’s name due to the leading role it plays within the takht. The qanun traditionally sets the pitch that the other musicians must follow, due to the fact that all notes in the Arabic scales can be played on open strings.
Music in the Face of War
Those forced from their homeland have held onto music as a remnant of culture for time in memorial. Our natural associations with sounds and places can draw enormous emotions in the most ordinary circumstances. For the people of Syria, the extraordinary hardships of the civil war, which has raged since 2011 and left around 350,000 dead, preserving traditional music is vital to the cultural well-being of those displaced. In such time of destruction intangible culture is often the only thing to survive and musicians, like Youssef, are continuing that tradition with passion and determination.
To me music is my healer and an antidote to what is happening, not only in Syria, but in the whole world. I like to think that my music brings people back to humanity and to their heart centres, where no harm can be done to any form of life and where all can exist together in peace. Maya Youssef
Read more about Maya Youssef and the qanun