x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Light in a dark world: Sami Yusuf

The Muslim singer and composer's latest album offers food for the soul, writes Maryam Ismail, in a personal appreciation of his work.

The singer and composer Sami Yusuf, pictured in Dubai.
The singer and composer Sami Yusuf, pictured in Dubai.

When I listen to Sami Yusuf's music, an old African-American spiritual song wells up in my memory, imploring me with the words "this little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine". Indeed, years after leaving the African Methodist Episcopal church to begin the journey of faith that eventually led me on to the path of Islam, I now fully understand what it means to let my own little light shine.

On his latest album, Wherever You Are, Yusuf is, at least for me, a warmly glowing presence, flickering away in the middle of the storm, one who defiantly says that he is a "man of faith" even if he risks his reputation by doing so. He is a British-Muslim who tells his fans to "add value to your societies". He is, of course, true to his own words and in recent months has released a charity single, Hear Your Call, from which all proceeds will go to relief efforts in Pakistan in the wake of this summer's devastating floods.

For some, Yusuf's music, with its mix of R&B, Arabic and Turkish influences, represents a kind of retreat from today's hip-hop and urban music - a form of cultural expression, that began as social protest, but has since become a multi-million dollar industry.

There is, inevitably, some controversy about whether his sound is haram (forbidden) or halal (approved). Nevertheless, for many new Muslims, myself included, his music reflects the positive qualities of Islam and is to be cherished.

In just eight years (his first album arrived in 2002 and Wherever You Are is his fourth release), Yusuf has sold more than nine million albums, a remarkable achievement for a performer who sings almost exclusively about Islam.

His career began with Al Mu'allim; a fresh and exciting album that slapped down some of the world's prevailing misconceptions about Islam by offering a different perspective on the religion. Yusuf is, however, far more modest about his debut release's ambitions and its reach: "I had no idea what I was doing," he admits, "I just wanted to show another side of Islam."

His second album, My Ummah released in 2005, sold more than four million copies. Its biggest hit, the single Hasbbi Rabbi (My Lord Protect Me), popped up everywhere for months afterwards, blaring from the open windows of passing cars and ringing from mobile phones. Even now, Yusuf still seems shocked by its runaway success: "[It was] like a bomb that fell on my head."

Part of that success can be explained by its multilingual approach and its expansive reach, vocally zig-zagging from English to Turkish, Urdu to Arabic.

The song's video too, reflects this same diversity, moving dizzily between London, Istanbul, Delhi, and Cairo as Yusuf is presented first as a besuited man in Britain on his way to work, then as a violin player with a Turkish music ensemble, before being transported to India to play cricket and, finally, running and jumping on one of Cairo's unstoppable buses. The pace of the music is as quick and light as the video's storyboard, flirting with Arabic drums, Turkish violins, and even synthesised wedding bells.

Visually, it is emblematic of his willingness to sonically explore the area that exists somewhere to the West of the East.

This is where he finds his home, in something that he terms "Spiritique", a philosophy and a style of music that evolves around spirituality and a sense of bringing people together.

True to this ethos, Yusuf has also recently launched Andante, his own record label to promote new artists and bring them to the attention of a wider audience.

According to Yusuf, Wherever You Are provides a window into his own heart, although he winces if you ask him define himself as either a rock or a pop star.  Nevertheless, his own music continues to reach that broader following. Healing, the last track on Wherever You Are, has become an instant YouTube hit. Its success lies in part in its simple message, but also in its sweet guitar acoustics and electronic chords - sounds that seem to invite listeners to open their hearts.

Meanwhile, Without You, a collaboration with the Turkish pop queen Sezen Aksu, has caused a buzz in the guest vocalist's home territory, after it was rumoured that she had written the Turkish-language lyrics for the song as a gift to Yusuf.

Unlike his previous albums, Yusuf also offers signs of experimentation. Give the Youth the Chance includes alternative rock riffs, reminiscent in their own small own way of Pearl Jam, accompanied by a South African Zulu chorus. This strangely endearing mix of styles is his ode to the young. "The youth," he says "are in need of more of our love."

Later, the same track fills with echoing piano chords and the mosh-worthy rat-tat-tat of a snare drum and bass guitar, then breaks down into a run of brisk drumbeats and strings, accompanied by unique Arabic-style vocals. His love of this kind of fusion, between the influences of East and West, remains undimmed to the last - that little light flickering in the storm.

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE.