Maya Youssef & Rachel Newton

Sage, Gateshead

27 June 2019

The Sage's "Folk on the Tyne" festival included so much music, I'm not even going to try to review it all. I'm going to talk about this one part, the highlight of the day for me, featuring an established favourite teamed with someone brand new to me.

Maya Youssef plays the qanun. I have honestly never even seen one before. It's a kind of flat harp you play on your lap. There are dozens of strings, and levers that let it play quarter tones, it is plucked with metal picks and fingers, and to my ears sounds exotic and alien and just ... amazing. And she's so fast. Her fingers blur as she plays streams of notes faster than ... well, let's just say it's the first time I've ever been to a Rachel Newton gig and not watched her fingers. But it's not all about showing off flashy technique, her compositions all hold your attention and carry considerable emotional weight. Maya Youssef is astonishing.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The concert was in three parts, and Rachel Newton started it by playing a short set (on acoustic harp) that showcased everything she does: from a fast and complex instrumental to English and Gaelic songs. All familiar pieces from her repertoire, but no matter how many times I hear her play these I will never get tired of them.

Then Maya Youssef takes the stage and plays a solo set of five tunes, and ... well, I've already said how much she impressed me.

Then, the third part of the show is supposed to be the two of them playing together. But there are only 10 minutes of their allotted hour left ... so they just ignore the published festival timing and play together for over half an hour, and seem to have so much fun doing it that you feel they could have gone longer. I would certainly have wished for longer. They play a mix of Maya's traditional Syrian tunes and Rachel's traditional Gaelic songs, and the blending of the similar-but-completely-different instruments, the warm resonance of the harp against the metallic sound of the qanun, is truly beautiful. They seem to be sounds that shouldn't work together but do, perfectly. Apparently they met face-to-face for the first time today, but you wouldn't know it from the music: the playing is absolutely flawless.

So not only did I see my favourite harpist (again), I also discovered my new favourite instrument. It's obviously been the best concert I have ever seen.

I don't know if this pairing will ever happen again, but I really hope it will.