SYRIAN musician Maya Youssef is a virtuoso on the qanun, the 78-string plucked zither at the heart of Arabic music.

78 strings, Maya? "It's just a number. You soon get over it," she says, ahead of Friday's concert at the National Centre for Early Music, York, with percussionist Elizabeth Nott and cellist Barney Morse-Brown.

Born in Damascus into a progressive, intellectual family of writers and artists, Maya is the first to pursue a musical career. "I started studying music aged seven at the Sulhi al-Wadi Institute of Music in Damascus," she recalls. "When I was nine, it was time to choose an instrument.

"My family bought me a violin, which I reluctantly agreed to learn, but one day I was heading towards the institute with my mother, and the taxi driver was playing a recording of an enchanting instrument that blew my mind."

What instrument was it, Maya asked the taxi driver, "The qanun", came the reply. "I decided there and then I would play that instrument and told him I was determined to learn it," says Maya.

"His reply shocked me, but it kindled a flame within me. He told me I was a girl and that girls just don’t play the qānūn. 'This is a man’s instrument', he grinned, 'played only by men'. He advised me to forget about it, but I challenged him and said, 'I will learn to play the qānūn'!"

The taxi driver laughed at her, but Maya was determined to prove him wrong, even though only five per cent of qanun players are female.

Whereupon serendipity played its hand. "Later that same day, as I was sitting in my solfeggio class, the head of the institute walked in and announced that the qānūn class was open for enrolment," she recalls.

"I was first in the queue and enrolled immediately, with the full support of my parents, who then replaced the violin they had bought me with a qānūn."

Maya describes this distinctive instrument as "intricate, like the inside of a piano". "It's complicated to make but easy to maintain because my qanun was made by this amazing man, Nabil Qassis, in Aleppo. It took him a year to make because it's of the highest grade, made with maple wood, chrome for the knobs and gut and crystal for the strings," she says. "Room temperature can affect the tuning of a qanun but this one is really well balanced."

Maya was once told her fingers were "not long enough" to play the qanun. "But the other wonderful thing about this instrument is that it was specially made smaller for me. Normally the space between strings is bigger – and the instrument is heavy to carry – but I asked Nabil to adapt it."

Now living in an international community in London, Maya looked to her homeland on her debut album, Syrian Dreams, released last November. "This album is my personal journey through the seven years of war in Syria. It is a translation of my memories of home and my feelings into music," she says. "I see the act of playing music as the opposite of death; it is a life and hope-affirming act.

"To me music is a healer and an antidote to what is happening, not only in Syria, but across 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 wrote Syrian Dreams – the album comprises 90 per cent original material – under stressful circumstances. "To be honest, when I was writing, it was not from my head, The context was I was going through a seriously abusive relationship – though I'm now in a place of peace and married to a lovely Englishman – so writing was my healing tool and I wrote from my gut," she says.

"It was a very intuitive, healing experience, and later on, when people asked, 'didn't you think about how you would market it?', and I said, 'No, not at all'."

Maya talks of "the tree of life", and how her music may be rooted in ancient tradition but fresh branches sprout and spread out in her compositions. "I am free with where my music can go," she says.

"As a qanun player you are expected to be traditional, even more so as a woman, but I've broken free from that. If the album is released in Syria, there will be people saying, 'oh, how could you do that?', though there'll be people who love it too, as I have many fans there who keep asking, 'when are you going to play here?'."

The NCEM will be the last night of Maya's British travels before she tours Denmark and Norway in November. "It will be my first time in York, my first time at the NCEM, and I love playing in churches like this [the former St Margaret's Church, in Walmgate]," she says. "So it will be a beautiful closing night to the tour.

"After spending four days with Elizabeth and Barney, playing the same music over and over, the more we play, we reach different heights and try different things, because many of the parts are improvised, and we play things to surprise each other after two years of playing together. That's why it'll be fun and we'll have a lovely time there."

Maya Youssef, National Centre for Early Music, York, Friday, 7.30pm. Tickets: £17, concessions £15, on 01904 658338 or at

Charles Hutchinson