Maya Youssef Syrian Dreams
Review by Tyran Grillo
Syrian Dreams was inspired by Maya Youssef’s reactions to seeing her homeland ravaged by war in 2011. Having never written music before yet unable to ignore the compositional impulses welling up inside her, she let her melodic reactions flow into the present album. Since growing up in Damascus, where she was told that the qanun was a “man’s instrument,” she has cultivated a masterful relationship with the plucked zither, and from it has unraveled this honest portrait of conflict: at once privileged to have life yet knowing that the very place which gave it to her has suffered unimaginable turmoil.
Her distance from said turmoil is the album’s thematic frame tale, taking shape in “Horizon” and “The Sea,” which respectively open and close the program. Immediately noticeable is the cinematic intimacy flowing from Youssef’s hands as they navigate the landscape of her fated instrument like nomads with no other destination than love. Throughout the journey between them, Youssef is joined by fellow travelers Barney Morse-Brown (cello), Sebastian Flaig (percussion), and Attab Haddad (oud), whose roots thrive in her sonic soil. In their presence, titles such as “Bombs turn into roses” become flashes of poetry in a prosaic world, their urgency so timely as to be impossible to misinterpret. Flaig’s rhythms flow with tragic empathy, evoking the footsteps of children running from explosions…
"Queen of the Night" (excerpt)
In spite of the horrors fueling it, Youssef’s music finds its escapes in the power of improvisation, whether in the dreamlike “Queen of the Night” or the groovier “Hi-Jazz,” but nowhere more consummately than “The Seven Gates of Damascus.” This cosmologically themed seven-part suite is the album’s zenith, and almost makes one forget the injustices backgrounding it. Aside from its final section, and the lovingly arranged “Touta,” all of the album’s material is original. The latter, a romantic piece written by Syrian oudist Farid al-Atrash, only serves to underscore the depth of personal longings. The same holds even truer for the unaccompanied track, a self-described prayer for peace that expresses both the physical and psychological lengths its composer has had to endure to reach this point of synchronicity.
In addition to its heartrending music, Syrian Dreams has been remarkably recorded. From microphone placement to mixing, producer/engineer Jerry Boys has managed to capture and enhance the significance of home and the pain of having to leave it, and by that attention shares Youssef’s vision of a future when hope is no longer an ideal but the very ground yielding beneath every sole. - Tyran Grillo