An Invitation to Daydream
The event’s format combines a concert with interludes for discussions led by the artist between musical performances. This format offers insight into the creative process and delves into the history of Arab music. Maya Youssef, of Syrian origin, invites us into her own narrative, exploring Maqam, the melodic system of traditional Arab music, and Tarab, the emotional essence of this music. Tarab has a profound connection to the “duende” of flamenco and jazz. As Youssef puts it, these genres defy categorization and share a fundamental element: improvisation.
An Invitation to Daydream.
The British Museum entrusted me with the creation of two compositions in conjunction with artworks featured in the “Reflections” exhibition. In April 2021, during a period of lockdown when the museum remained closed, I immersed myself in this exhibition. This particular piece finds its inspiration in “Silent Letters,” a series of paintings by Lebanese artist Huguette Caland, celebrated for their minimalist aesthetic characterized by simple, straight lines and stratified colors. These artworks spurred my imagination, beckoning me to embark on a journey of reverie.
“Hijaz” is the name of the maqam (musical scale) in which this piece is composed. I grew up listening to various styles of Jazz and discovered that this genre is incredibly challenging to describe and confine within a single category. Jazz and Arabic music share a fundamental element: improvisation. This piece serves as my homage to Jazz within the context of the Hijaz scale.
Bombs Turn Into Roses
In 2014, I was going through an exceptionally difficult period in my personal life. Simultaneously, my country was experiencing relentless bombings. I had a dream in which I was under bombardment. In the dream, I watched as the bombs drew nearer, and just before reaching the ground, they transformed into delicate rose petals. I wished that such a transformation could happen in reality, but alas, it was only in my dreams.
The Seven Gates of Damascus – an excerpt.
This composition comprises seven sections, each meticulously corresponding to one of Damascus’s historic gates. Drawing upon diverse theories, including al-Kindi’s, which associates each planet with a specific maqam (musical scale), I orchestrated these scales with precision.
Many historians who have documented the history of Damascus, including Ibn Asaaker (1105-1175 AD) in “History of the city of Damascus” (1995), describe the layers of the city and the locations of the gates, which were geographically aligned with the seven planets to attract prosperity and protection to the city and its inhabitants. Damascus was not only constructed around these gates but these gates have also borne witness to the city’s history since its inception, spanning the ages up to the present day. Furthermore, these seven gates hold immense historical and cultural significance for Syria.
The suite is organized as follows: Bab Al-Saghir, ‘The Small Gate’ (Jupiter-maqam Ushaq); Bab Kisan, ‘The Gate of Kisan’; (Saturn- maqam Kurd); Bab Touma – ‘The Gate of Saint Thomas’ (Venus- Maqam Bayati/Saba); Bab Al-Jabiyah- ‘The Gate of Water Through’ (Mars- maqam Hijaz); Bab Al-Faradis – ‘The Gate of Paradise’ (Mercury- Huzzam); Bab Al-Salam – ‘The Gate of Peace’ (Moon- maqam Nahawand); and Bab Sharqi ‘The Eastern Gate.’ (Sun- maqam Rast). The last gate (Bab Sharqi) is a Syrian folk tone that personifies the everlasting love of the Syrians.
This is a new piece, commissioned by the Leighton House Museum. The first part of “The Sound of Home” Wasla, is written to evoke the traditional form of a Damascus house, incorporating a contemporary twist. Leighton House is perhaps the Arab house in London, with a beautiful Damascene room. “The Sound of Home” is Maya’s response to the evocative interiors of the museum, incorporating her concept of home, a recurring theme in her career as a displaced musician.
Samai of Tree
I have always harbored a desire to compose a “samai,” an ancient form of Arab music built upon the meditative 10/8 rhythm. As I was creating this piece, I realized that I was either gazing at trees or sitting beneath one in my backyard, hence the title “Samai of Tree.” This composition pays tribute to the ancestral guardians of the land, who provide both comfort and healing during these challenging times.
Lullaby: A Promise of A Rain
Last year, I witnessed a Syrian mother fleeing from an explosion, leaving everything behind. She cradled a baby in her arms and sang softly to comfort the child. They existed within their own bubble of hope—a promise of a rainbow.
Queen of the night
The scale of this piece is known as “Bayati,” signifying the scale of the late night. I added an unconventional twist to this scale. Growing up in Damascus, I used to read Syrian folktales about a beautiful queen who only ventured out into the forest at night, where she danced gracefully, her exquisite dress trailing behind her. She embodied a dream, radiating happiness and even mischief, much like this piece.
This is the second piece commissioned by the British Museum. One artwork that immediately captured my attention during my exploration of “Reflections” was “Unravelling” by Samira Abbasy. In the painting, her skirt and figure swayed gracefully, seemingly synchronized with the title of Umm Kulthum’s song, the celebrated diva of Arab music. When I initially attempted to encapsulate this in a composition, it did not work. However, as I delved deeply into the emotional essence of the painting, the words “Soul Fever” resonated within me. This piece represents a ritual—a journey I undertook to find a sense of belonging within myself and within my spirituality.