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LIVE: Maya Youssef / Thanda Gumede – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, 20/06/2024

It is World Refugee Day. Each year on the 20th of June the world celebrates this event to honour those people who have been forced to flee. And in keeping with its firm commitments towards embracing diversity and supporting inclusivity the Howard Assembly Room marks this special occasion by placing a suitably international emphasis upon this evening’s performance.

The concert begins with an appearance from Thanda Gumede, a vocalist and multi-disciplinary artist who hails from Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa but is now primarily based in Leeds. Accompanied by two other local musicians, Simeon Walker (piano) and Fergus Quill (upright bass), Gumede delights an appreciative audience with a truly magical set highlighting his deeply resonant, expressive baritone voice and winning personality.

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Thanda Gumede with Simeon Walker and Fergus Quill

Thanda Gumede opens with an African hymn, ‘Masimbonge’ – taught to him by his mother – and concludes with another traditional African song, ‘Ngimlanze’, both of which have been arranged by himself and Simeon Walker. In between these majestic staging posts, he brings World Refugee Day and its inherent purpose into even sharper and more painful relief. He first speaks most movingly about his own right to work, his right to do anything, having been previously removed in this country – he says “it was illegal for me to sing” – and follows this with his powerful interpretation of ‘Qongqothwane’ (‘The Click Song’), a song popularised by the South African singer Miriam Makeba who had experienced refugee status when finding herself exiled from her home country in 1960.

Tonight’s headline performance is advertised as Maya Youssef: Finding Home, taking its name from that of the British-Syrian composer and musician and the title of her latest album. Maya Youssef is a globally renowned and award-winning player of the qanun, a traditional 78-stringed Middle Eastern instrument. And Finding Home is her second album, a record described as “a poignant reflection on finding a spiritual home away from a war-torn homeland.”

On stage with Maya Youssef are Ben Smith (piano) and Elizabeth Nott (percussion). Together the three musicians begin this virtuoso performance with ‘An Invitation to Day Dream’, the opening track on Finding Home. Inspired by a miniature painting in a museum it is a beautiful meditative piece. They proceed to play the album in its entirety, albeit not in the order that appears on the record. Regardless of its sequencing, though, Finding Home remains an incredibly powerful, poignant, deeply affecting, and longing love letter to Maya Youssef’s home country and the devastating impact that war and displacement has had upon her.

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Maya Youssef

Woven into this looser fabric of Finding Home are a couple of pieces – the subtle groove of ‘Hi-Jazz’ and the joyful recreational pursuit of ‘The Sea’ – from Maya Youssef’s debut album, Syrian Dreams. There is even time for a couple of quickly improvised sections from ‘The Seven Gates of Damascus’ from that same recording as well the vibrancy of ‘Turquoise’, specially commissioned by Leighton House in London and inspired by the vibrant tiled interiors of Damascene houses.

This entire performance is stitched together by Maya Youssef’s wonderful storytelling – including a delightful beginner’s guide on how to play the qanun – and the natural warmth of her personality which continues to shine through despite much of the despair and despondency surrounding many of her own personal experiences. The ultimate message that emanates from this transcendental evening in celebration of World Refugee Day is one of a fervent hope for global peace.

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Maya Youssef with Ben Smith and Elizabeth Nott

Photos: Simon Godley

More photos of Thanda Gumede

More photos of Maya Youssef

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.