ASYLUM Portsmouth: A Musical Response to Brexit

Maya Youssef, screenshot from YouTube.

Journeys Festival International continues tonight with ASYLUM Portsmouth, devised as a musical response to Brexit and anti-migrant rhetoric. Working with locally acclaimed producers The People’s Lounge, ASYLUM Portsmouth aims to increase the exposure, skills, aspirations and employability of the talented refugee musicians who now call Portsmouth home.

Dianna Djokey concludes the third of an exclusive interview series on the Journeys Festival with this interview with Maya Youssef مايا يوسف, winner of the Exceptional Talent Award and recent star of the BBC Proms at The Royal Albert Hall, who is headlining tonight’s performance.

Dianna Djokey: Can you tell us about yourself and your musical journey?

Maya Youssef: I was born and brought up in Damascus in a household full of books and music from all over the world. When I was nine, I fell in love with the qanun when I heard it in a taxi. I chose it and it chose me. Since then it was my companion. My musical journey was morphed by my personal journey . It was difficult and I had to die ‘metaphorically’ to find myself but it is so worth it.

DD: With the Journeys Festival International celebrating the arts and culture that refugee and asylums seekers bring to British society, what does your music represent for the unheard voices?

MY: I would like to think that it represents strength, home, or a place of peace.

DD: What stories have resonated with you the most and have inspired your music?

MY: Since the start of the war [in Syria], I was struck by the degree of separation between us humans. I knew about it before obviously but I did not experience it so strongly. Some say that you need to experience the opposite value of what you are seeking. I experienced extreme separation in order to appreciate unity and peace. I see us humans all as members of the same family. When I play in any concert or when I write, I pray my music brings peace and harmony to the listener.

DD: Can you talk to me about your musical process?

MY: It all starts with an emotion. This emotion then rings in my head as a melody. Once the melody is established I dress it with musical layers; cello, percussion…. Most of my pieces have an improvisation section which gives me the freedom to play around. This part is never performed the same in concerts and is guided by the moment.

DD: Listening to your BBC Radio 4 interview and performance, which was extremely honest, your touching approach to sensitive matters relating to refugees and asylum seekers is highly admirable: can you tell me why this approach is so important to take?

MY: Simply because I believe we are all one whether we want to admit it or not and by caring for refugees we are essentially caring for ourselves.

DD: Your anticipated album Syrian Dreams is due to be released 17th November 2017. What do you hope to accomplish with this album, and what would you like your audience to take from it?

MY: Someone recently asked me ‘are you not afraid to hold your heart so bare in your first record?’ I was petrified at first but when I started seeing how the music touches people in live concerts, I then felt it was ok to be vulnerable. I put my all my heart in this record. All the pain, sadness, hopes and all the love I can carry. I want my listeners to feel the love as if it is engulfing them in a warm hug.

Find out more about the festival here or download their brochure to find all activities and events taking place from 19th – 29th October. Watch a video teaser for Maya’s new album Syrian Dreams below.