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Monday, April 04, 2005

Yusuf Islam: 'Music is part of God's universe'

'Music is part of God's universe'

Yusuf Islam was deported from America for being a 'security threat'. How, he asks Nigel Williamson, could they get him so wrong?

Tuesday March 29, 2005
The Guardian

'Music is a lady that I still love'... Yusuf Islam. Photo: Eamonn McCabe
Yusuf Islam doesn't look like a threat to anyone's national security. As he bounds into the room dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, he looks strikingly like a slightly older version of the gentle singer-songwriter we used to know as Cat Stevens. And yet, in September last year he was escorted off a flight from London to Washington and grilled by the FBI, which then deported him as a security threat.

Since then, he has been wrongly accused of supporting terrorist groups by the Sunday Times and the Sun, who were last month forced to pay damages. "Ever since I became a Muslim, I've had to deal with attempts to damage my reputation and countless insinuations seeking to cast doubt on my character and trying to connect me to causes which I do not subscribe to," he grumbled after the out-of-court settlement.

The newspapers apologised, but there has been no contrition or apology on the part of the US government. "They still haven't even given me a satisfactory explanation," he says with a shake of his beard. He was on his way to Nashville to discuss "musical ideas" with a record company when he was refused entry and he would like to return. "But I'm not begging to go back until they sort it out and give me an apology. It's scary how wrong they can get it." Then, with more emollience, he adds: "But all things can be forgiven if we can progress."
For fans clinging to memories of Cat Stevens, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story is that it hinges on "musical ideas". For more than 20 years, Yusuf Islam and Cat Stevens have been estranged. He didn't just stop making records after releasing his 1978 album Back to Earth: he sold his guitars, disowned his past and became the most zealous of converts. It was as if he was trying to deny Cat Stevens had ever existed.
Yusuf and Cat first cautiously shook hands in 1999, when for the first time since his "retirement", he endorsed a new collection of his greatest hits. Since then it's been a step-by-step process back to full musical health. Shortly after 9/11, he sang an a cappella version of Peace Train by video link to the charity concert in New York for the victims. It was the first time he had performed a Cat Stevens song in public in almost a quarter of a century. Then he penned some affectionate liner notes for a box set of his old songs. Further charity performances followed for Bosnian refugees and Nelson Mandela's Aids charity. Late last year he appeared on stage with a guitar for the first time since the 1970s at a Darfur benefit. There was also a re-recording with Ronan Keating of his classic Father & Son.
And now, at last, there is a new single: Indian Ocean, the first song he has composed since he retired from music in 1978. A six-minute epic inspired by the tsunami tragedy, it boasts all the melodic facility of old and the yearning of his voice remains unmistakable. It was released this week as a download only; one of a batch of new songs, if it's well received, an album will follow.
Even so, he is reluctant to talk in terms of a comeback. "No, it's not the return of Cat Stevens," he laughs. "But I've re-examined my past body of work and you can call it a rejuvenation. It's a natural expression of my concern as a Muslim and as an artist. I believe both can exist side by side, particularly when the cause is right."
We meet in a south London studio where he's rehearsing a semi-autobiographical musical called Moonshadow, based on the songs that in his 1970s heyday provided the soundtrack to broken hearts in bedsits across the land. It's immediately evident that something has changed in him. Although the beard is still worn mullah-length, he looks younger without the Islamic garb we have grown accustomed to seeing. His demeanour is different, too: his eyes twinkle and his conversation is regularly punctuated with laughter. As one of his colleagues says, he has learned to "lighten up". And with that has come a return to music.
"I don't think I ever actually said music was blasphemous. But I needed that break. I had to get away from the business because I didn't want it to divert me from my chosen path. I found what I was looking for and the Koran gave me the answer to the big questions in life. It would have been hypocritical to go on as before and be a phoney imitation of myself. But I never said I'd never make music again. It was just that there were a lot of other things I had to get on with in my life."
Born Steven Dimitri Georgiou to a Greek restaurateur and a Swedish mother in 1947, he grew up in London's West End and went to a Roman Catholic school in Drury Lane. He had his first hit, I Love My Dog, in 1966; his record covers of the time depicted a foppishly handsome young man dressed in lace and crushed velvet. He enjoyed the pop star life to the hilt, throwing himself enthusiastically into a whirl of drink, drugs and girls. Then in 1968 he contracted TB. When he emerged from hospital a year later he was much changed, reinventing himself as a sensitive acoustic troubadour. "People have times in their lives when they are forced to examine themselves... You stop and think: 'It could all disappear tomorrow.' That was the beginning for me of that process of thought."
A golden run of albums followed throughout the 1970s - Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, Catchbull at Four, Foreigner, and Buddha and the Chocolate Box. Their success led him into tax exile in Brazil for a year, although he later donated the money he saved to Unesco.
One day in the mid-1970s, when swimming off Malibu beach, he was swept out to sea and feared he was going to drown. He recalls that he cried out to God to save him. The tide turned and washed him back to shore and he took it as a sign. But it was not until his brother David gave him a copy of the Koran in 1977 that he felt he had found the answers to the quest that many of his songs described. By the end of the year he had changed his name and given up his career.
With the commitment of the convert, he soon became a leading figure in the British Muslim community, running Islamic schools in north London, serving on the Muslim Council of Great Britain and as a trustee of Fair, the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism, and running his One Small Kindness charity, which helps orphans and young people in the Balkans and Iraq. Last month, the charity opened for relief operations in Aceh, Indonesia.
He came back to songwriting only after his wife bought their son a guitar a couple of years ago. "She got him a black Gibson and so we had this instrument sitting around in the house again and it was very difficult for me not to pick it up," he says. Asked how he felt when he first ran his fingers over the strings again, he simply replies: "I was just glad I could remember the chords."
Music occupies an important part in his life again. He's even playing with Alun Davies, the co-guitarist who accompanied him on most of his greatest hits. "Music is a lady that I still love because she gives me the air that I breathe," he quotes from one of his old songs. "We need all sorts of nourishment. And music satisfies and nourishes the hunger within ourselves for connection and harmony. It's part of God's universe."
Yet he insists he has no regrets about cutting himself off from music for so long. "To be what you want to be, you must give up being what you are," he says. He still disapproves of the "negative aspects of what music encourages, like partying, drinking and sex". But at it's best he says music is a force for "healing".
He's already started recording his new songs, but doesn't have a record deal and hasn't decided where to put the songs: "I've returned to being an amateur without any ties or strings attached, which gives me a freedom I never had before."
When asked if we'll ever see him again in concert, he buries his head in his hands in mock horror. "There are people waving cheque books. But my wife wouldn't allow that," he says. "She loves my songs but she doesn't want to see me going down that road." And yet, he says: "There are a lot of good causes out there to sing for. And if Indian Ocean does well, perhaps people will remember my voice and what I was able to do with it."
  Indian Ocean is available as a download from www.yusufislam.org.uk for 69p. All proceeds go to orphaned children in Indonesia's Aceh province.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/features/story/0,11710,1447120,00.html

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