x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Yusuf Islam impresses royalty with first Middle East public performance

After his sell-out show in Doha last week before an audience of 2,800, we talk to the multi-platinum-selling singer.

Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, in Doha.
Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, in Doha.

Perhaps unintentionally, Yusuf Islam – the Londoner born Steven Demetre Georgiou – has a style matching the amalgam of cultures he represents.

He's wearing jeans, one of his own Cat Stevens – Peace Train T-shirts and a sheepskin and leather jacket. He's sporting the same beard he's had since the late 1970s, though there are a few more grey hairs now, and his iPhone sitting on the table in front of him quietly rings with a call to prayer alarm mid-interview. He's slim, no taller than 5ft 8in, and speaks with a proper London accent, interspersing common idioms such as "innit" into conversation. The multi-platinum-selling singer, who relocated to Dubai several years ago, has both the wisdom of a man nearing his mid-60s and the humour of a young boy.

In his early 20s, he flirted with several religions to find contentment. He famously discovered Islam before 30 and subsequently gave up music.

"I was upset by the reaction of the press towards me," he says, in Doha for a sell-out public show last Thursday night before an audience of 2,800. "I thought everybody would embrace and understand my reasons for becoming Muslim. Islam comes from Salam (meaning peace). People wanted to take an opposing view from day one. That, you know, immediately creates antagonism. I was not patient enough to abide by that and I just walked away."

He took his first gradual steps back in the mid-1990s, producing spiritual music. Six years ago, he released An Other Cup, his first western-style album since the long break. Now he is pursuing more ambitious, culturally inclusive and entertaining projects. He's ramping up to a comeback and is finally at peace with all that has happened, embracing his pre-conversion achievements and merging them with new material on live stages.

"I have come to the conclusion that after a while, yes there is haram music and there is also halal music," he says. "It's still a matter of opinion. How you use what God has given is how you are going to be judged, especially if it's not haram totally from the beginning. It's like grapes, they go through two series. They go from wine before they get to vinegar."

The Qatar show marked a key moment in his journey. He held what was marketed as his first concert in the Middle East. Although he has played private shows in the region before now, this was a public debut and his first Middle East concert.

The audience, seated in a temporary outdoor space, swayed to hits new, old, Christian and Islamic. If ever a seal of approval was needed, it came from the Emir's wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser, who enjoyed the full performance and was seen in standing ovation, cheering the singer's finale of Peace Train. From May 7 until June 2 last year, he performed in 10 European cities. "It was a fantastic tour, it went really well," he says.

His next few months will be spent finalising details of his first musical, Moonshadow, due to launch in Melbourne at the end of May. The play was originally planned for London more than a year ago.

"I grew up in the West End so my whole background was living among theatres and musicals and the West End's coffee bars and clubs," he said. "It's kind of obvious that one day I should do something like that."

He hasn't given many details about the form the musical will take yet, but he expects it to travel to Broadway at some point.

"It's got most of my older songs as well as new songs, it's been an inspiration for me to write the story and to find the theme that would carry all of my songs in one musical."

In his youth, he drew inspiration from "The Beatles, Beethoven, Bernstein and Bach". Lately he has been influenced by events in the Arab world – last year penning and recording the simple, mellow tune My People for the Tahrir Square revolutionaries.

"I got very inspired and I wrote the song called My People, then I got people through Facebook to add their voices to the chorus, then I put it out in a way to support the movement," he says. "I recorded it in Berlin about 100 yards from the where the Berlin wall fell. It was kind of symbolic in a way.

"Music becomes a commentary of world events – sometimes it predicts, like (Bob Dylan's) The Times they are a-Changin', but do they change fast enough? Does music make it go faster? These are still questions."

As uprisings elsewhere continue, there are concerns of disunity among the Muslim community, or Ummah, as it's known.

"The middle ground has to be the strongest," advises Islam. "There may be differences but the central themes and principles of Islam will not change, and we all agree about that."

artslife@thenational.ae

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