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Maya Youssef

Friday night at The Arts Centre, and one of those rare occasions when you really have no idea as to what you are about to hear, and life is all the better for that. My prior knowledge consists of the fact that the Maya Youssef Trio consists of three people and that Maya herself is from Syria, I also knew that she plays the Kanun which is a Syrian cousin of the zither which has seventy eight strings, but I have no idea what it sounds like.

I believe that someone once said that from small acorns mighty oaks grow, that may be a metaphor too far but I’m sure you get the idea. First lovely surprise is the food for sale and eaten by me – made by the Syrian refugees that have made their home in Colchester, if you come across one of their pop up cafes do indulge yourself as it is unlikely to be a thing you’ll regret.

Next surprise, the support comes from another Syrian refugee by the name of Juan. He plays an electric saz which is something I never knew existed, the only other ones I have heard have been wooden bodied acoustic versions. However I am not convinced that adding electricity bestows any more virtue upon the instrument – sounded a little too boomy and distorted for my taste.

Last and best surprise, the Maya Youssef Trio sound absolutely wonderful  and I shall look forward to hearing her debut album when it is unleashed upon the world later this year. But, I guess, the burning question is what on earth does a Kanun sound like? That was immediately answered by the first piece “Horizon” a kanun solo, I’ve no idea how it compares with other members of the zither family but, armed with a little world music knowledge, I would suggest that it sounds a little like a harsher version of the West African kora, although certainly not in a negative way.

I was, also, expecting the majority of the repertoire to come from the Syrian classical tradition but most came from Maya herself which was no bad thing at all, and I was especially taken by a piece called “He/Jazz” which explores the common improvisory nature of middle eastern and jazz music. Although my absolute favourite of the first half was written by a Syrian composer whose name I didn’t catch but I did understand that it was about forbidden love. You could certainly feel the unrequitedness, new word, in the taut flurries from the kanun whilst the percussion and cello steadied the ship and provided the moments of equilibrium.

It sounds like an enormous under valuation to say that the second half was much the same, but there is only so much this writer, of limited imagination, can say that comes anywhere near conveying the hypnotic subtlety and reflection present in this gorgeous music, with the sonorous cello holding the whole thing together whilst the kanun flies off into flights of arpeggios and the percussion dances around. Music to, simultaneously, soothe and uplift the soul.

Wonderful evening, and a whole heap of praise should be heaped upon The Roman River Festival who organised this event, more power to their collective elbow and, I hope, we can do similar all over again.