As Maya sat down, she smoothed her illustrious dress, decorated in antique bronze and azure interlocking flowers, and placed her Qanun across her lap. It was roughly the size of a small (albeit wonky) table and, she explained to us, had 78 strings and endless levers with which to change their pitch as she played. Elegantly wrought and decorated in white symbols as it was, the thing looked heavy and cumbersome and it was hard to imagine anything but a clunky, strangled vibrato noise emanating from it.
She had two tortoiseshell picks fixed to each index finger with silver bands, looking for all the world like sharp, keen talons. And, as she began to play, her hands took on the appearance of small birds, the picks their beaks as they wove, ducked, spun and twirled seemingly with a mind of their own, in a courtship, or mating display. And the sound … the sound was fluid, dreamy yet tinged with a sadness that caught you in the back of the throat like a sip of Arak.
Maya’s hands flew, deftly, sometimes nothing but streaks of pure motion. Locked in a dialogue with her Qanun, a language passing between them that we couldn’t even hope to decode, as she by turns gently and ferociously coaxed stories out of the instrument.
With just a few words, Maya offered us small windows into the worlds behind each song. For Horizon, the first track of her album Syrian Dreams, she recounted how, as a child, she used to climb the fig tree outside her parents’ house each morning and there, perched on a perfect bough, ate fresh figs and drank her coffee as the sun crested the mountains. And later, when discussing the origins of Arabic music, she told us how the planets held great significance for each musical key. For the track The Seven gates of Damascus she asked us to picture the city’s gates (each one constructed in honour of a different planet) as she travelled through the seven sections of the song, each in a key representing a unique alignment in the solar system. But for the most part, the melodies and bittersweet crests and troughs of sound did the storytelling for her and we had but to close our eyes and we were there. Each piece was one of her memories trapped in amber.
“I’m not a fan of stereotypes” she confessed, adding that she was fed up with the assumption that all Arabic music sounds the same and so launched into a groovy rendition of the traditional Arabic scale Hijaz, playfully reinvented as ‘Hi-Jazz’.
The songs weren’t just churned out on cue, they seemed to take a lot out of Maya and after Bombs Turn into Roses and Syrian Dreams, which chronicled her time in an abusive relationship and the war in Syria, came to an end she gazed at the Qanun with a deep hurt, her smile touched with a pain. There were a few seconds of pure silence and it was only when she looked up at us and put her hands together in prayer and thanks that we clapped.
Even though Maya was centre-stage, the performance was of course as a trio. The percussionist was as deft with her box drum as Maya was with her 78 strings and could do things to a tambourine that you couldn’t even dream of. She also played an Iranian-Kurdish Daf drum, with chain links attached all around the inner rim that leant it a more aggressive, boisterous sound. The cellist was a stoic, bearded man in a black three-piece suit. I never knew it was possible for a human to make such funky, moving music whilst looking so darned solemn.
Maya’s deep personal connection with her music was a thing of wonder. It seemed to be a complicated relationship – one born from joy and suffering. Once told by a Syrian taxi driver that she would never be able to play the Qanun as it was a man’s instrument, Maya seems to have kept her fiery, rebellious nature even to this day. She plays as revolution, she plays as rejuvenation, she plays for peace, she plays to heal and she plays to remember.