10 minutes with the man who was Cat

BEIRUT: “Now I’m gonna take a little break,” Yusuf Islam announces to his Saturday evening audience. He’s already seated and, as he speaks, a white tablecloth-draped table is whisked on stage before him.

“Well it did take you a long time to arrive,” he jokes to the audience, groups of whom were still filing into BIEL an hour after the show’s start time. “Now I’m gonna get you back!”

After ruminating over the coffee pot before him, stories about leaving and coming home, he confesses he’s been writing a musical, one that takes its name, “Moon Shadow,” from one of the many songs he composed when people knew him by the name “Cat Stevens.”

Islam’s show is divided between those Stevens tunes familiar to mostly everyone in this capacity audience – whether actively listening to his records or absorbing them passively in the decades after Stevens embraced Islam and abandoned music.

The day of the show, Islam told The Daily Star about his gradual reconciliation of his music with his faith.

“Music is an issue which is still under debate,” he said, “because there is no clear indication in sacred text, either in Quran or authentic and unambiguous hadith. It is something that is subject to discussion and research.

“In the beginning, ... when I heard some of the hadith or some of the reported hadith, I was a little bit careful and thought, OK I’m gonna withdraw until I know more, until God makes it more clear to me.

“I left. I got busy with work and education and charity and raising a family.

“But music does have a very special place. If you look at prophetic tradition you’ll see that the Prophet (praise be upon him) acknowledged that. In fact there are stronger hadith to show that, when there was a time when there was music or singing in the Prophet’s house and one of the companions came in to object, he told him to stop and for [the musicians] to carry on.

“Yes, there is this hadith about the Prophet (PBUH), when he heard the flute, putting his fingers in his ears.

“But, if you analyze it from another point of view, that’s because he is the Prophet and he is of such a status that – ” he recites from the hadith in question – “music is not suitable for the Prophet. That doesn’t mean it isn’t suitable for others. When he didn’t restrict or prohibit then it leaves the allowance to people of lesser status.”

Looking back to the start of his career as a performer, Islam says music was part of his experimentation with artistic expression.

“Song-writing took over from painting,” he said, “because it was somehow more instantaneous. When you make a painting you have to wait ’til it dries ... and you can’t get 5,000 people looking at one painting at the same time and having the same buzz. It’s to do with instantaneous connection with the artist and the viewer or the participant or the spectator.

“Music in itself is fantastic because it’s a science and it’s an art form that relates to the spheres and the heavens which God has created, beautiful. But when words come and coincide with beautiful music, it can be so powerful.”

Islam’s show is a compromise between his own needs and those of his audience. Evidently he’s aware that most people want to hear Cat Stevens tunes and he devotes about half the show to them. If Stevens ever regarded his pop songs to be elastic things to be improvised with in concert, Islam prefers to deliver these tunes exactly as people recall them from the recordings.

Some might find this a bit boring but it is no mean feat that, as he approaches 65, Islam’s voice sounds indistinguishable from the one on Cat Stevens’ recordings. In this he’s greatly aided by his superb backing quintet.

And occasionally Islam is willing to depart from the musical archive if it suits his ecumenical concerns. When the program arrives at the much-loved Stevens’ tune “Wild Word,” he sings a bar or two in Zulu, but carefully returns to the start of the song that everyone in the audience recognizes.

The show does reference religion (praising God, if not Islam per se), but the performer is as preoccupied with worldly injustice as were many 20th-century performers. He gives a shout-out to the popular uprisings that have broken out over the last year or so. “The people are rising,” he says, “and when that happens, you pray for their safety.”

To the demonstrators he dedicates the new song “My People,” which appears to have been released in 2011 online but not on CD. It is the one new tune in Saturday’s show that approaches the quality of a Cat Stevens tune, echoing some of the sentiments and stylistic elements of “Peace Train.”

Conversation with Yusuf Islam is striking for his apparent modesty. Asked how he was able to cope with bizarre objectification of celebrity, he shrugs, saying he’s learned to “look objectively at it ... I’ve been given something and because of that I feel grateful ... But it’s been given. It’s not as though I’m creating it truly, with my own power. I don’t have that.”

He attributes Cat Stevens’ rise to fame to the circumstances in which he happens to have emerged as a performer. “Singer-songwriters were suddenly being noticed,” he said. “I think the path had been made clear or at least defined by Dylan, by folk music and before that there were the blues players struggling to be heard, in chains. That’s rock’n’roll and the music business came from that surge to be emancipated, freed, to express, to live to be honored, to be respected.

Islam depicts his present relationship with music to be more balanced than it once was. “Now music is a part of my life, part of what I do and how I communicate. At one time it was my religion. But I’ve got my religion now,” he laughs, “and within that I had to find a place for music. I didn’t have to but I found it and everything is much more balanced.

“As I make money, I can give to charity, as well as that look after my family. It’s growing. I now have grandchildren. There’s my son-in-law,” he gestures to the young man who’s been quietly photographing the interview, “responsible for my three grandchildren.”

Two tunes into his band’s encore set, Yusuf Islam leans into the microphone. “We’re gonna give you one more,” he says. “Otherwise you’ll have to pay a little extra.”

Then he and his expert ensemble lean into a picture-perfect rendition of “Peace Train.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 20, 2012, on page 16.




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