Crouching Tiger, Hidden Humanitarian

Music Features Yusuf
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"I think one of the most spectacular aspects of the show was the tiger that we produced onstage in Los Angeles—we only did it once, because it was kind of dangerous and it was a difficult act to follow. But it was very effective.”

Chuckling over the surreal memory, Yusuf Islam is recalling a series of mid-’70s concerts under his old nom de plume, Cat Stevens—an over-the-top extravaganza he’d dubbed the Majikat Earth Tour. In a vaudevillian romp, the singer performed alongside a troupe of professional magicians, employing smoke, mirrors, disappearing cabinets and—as a grand finale—that stunning Siberian feline, which appeared to be summoned from thin air. “We had these people being sawed in half,” he adds. “So I suppose we were one of the first to put on a top-shelf production with all the trimmings, and we carted this massive stage around with us for this ambitious project.” Did the singer—who’s just released his first album in 28 years, as the mono-monikered Yusuf—come face to face with the majestic beast? “No, noooo,” he says. “I stayed well, well away. In the back of my dressing room until my moment, and then I’d come out.”

At the time, this mystical guitarist—born Steven Georgiou—was known for message-y hum-along hits like “Peace Train,” “Moonshadow,” “Wild World” and “The First Cut Is The Deepest” (later covered by both Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow). So what made him want to chase the tiger? “I suppose because I’ve studied various philosophies and religions and spiritual paths,” explains Yusuf, who settled on Islam and walked away from his Western career and lifestyle in ’78. “I was really into numerology at one point, when I recorded Numbers, the album back in ’75. And that was the catalyst for the tour—I got involved in the concept of making an interesting theme out of a magic act.” Plus, he readily admits, “I was pretty bored with touring, so I had to do something to entertain myself. But the time in which I toured—the whole ’70s and the ’60s, in fact, before it—was a very magical time, a very entertaining and creative time. And the variety of musics and styles that came out of that era are still being, in some ways, packaged and repeated today.”

Yusuf would like to bring back that ephemeral sense of wonder with An Other Cup, his comeback album. It’s almost as startling as seeing some jungle cat materialize: His willow-whispery voice is oddly undiminished; His lyrics are soul-searching as ever; And his sense of optimism and hope for humankind has only grown stronger through the years. Despite recent notoriety—not for the humanitarian causes he supports but for allegedly supporting the head-hunting fatwa on author Salman Rushdie in ’89 (not true, he’s since countered on his website), being caught on a no-fly list in ’04 and therefore denied entry into the U.S. (reportedly due to “potential terrorist-related activities,”)—he was quickly vindicated in the English press and even given a Man Of Peace Award for charitable works like Small Kindness, his worldwide relief fund for war orphans.

Now, more than ever, the London-and-Dubai-based Yusuf believes, “it’s very important to build bridges. And I’m in a unique position, almost like a looking glass through which Muslims can see the West and the West can see Islam. It’s important for me to help bridge that gap that other people are frightened to cross sometimes, and I think music is an international and universal language which transcends boundaries and cultural fences and walls. And that’s why I’m singing again.”

Hence An Other Cup’s telling, operatic cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” The rest of the set—filtered through a decidedly metaphysical prism—feels like prime Tea For The Tillerman-era Cat: the bongo-and-piano ode to life’s little pleasures, “Midday”; the lilting acoustic ballad “Heaven/Where True Love Goes” (which recalls the composer’s transformative near-drowning incident in Malibu in ’75, which helped convert him to Islam); and the set’s gorgeous guitar/keyboard centerpiece “In The End,” with its chorus of “You can’t bargain with the truth / ’Cause one day you’re gonna die / And good’s gonna go high / And evil’s going down in the end.” Thanks to daily readings of the Qur’an and simple singing around the house, Yusuf says, “My voice was kept in trim, and my voice is my trademark. The closest you can get to a person, I think, is listening to the vibrations of their voice.”

Over the course of a leisurely, hour-long chat, Yusuf bounds cheerfully from topic to topic: How he’s just become a grandfather; how beauty is all around, just waiting to be appreciated; how leaving the music industry felt like freedom; how so many organized religions have been commandeered for political gain; and how he finally understood that pop music and the teachings of Mohammed were not mutually exclusive ideals. “After studying the subject for many years,” he relates, “I realized that there’s a path for the human being which, quite frankly, needs to be in touch with the harmony of this universe, and music is one of the purest expressions of that harmony. And I also discovered, quite interestingly, that the guitar itself—which I’d put down for so many years—was probably introduced to Europe through Muslim Spain. By Muslims!”

His one mistake in his Cat-to-Yusuf metamorphosis? “Not considering enough the feelings of those who I was leaving behind [i.e. his dumbfounded fans],” he concedes. “I tried to sort out my life, but I couldn’t do it in public—I had to get away.” He began redirecting his royalties into kindly works, like the series of Muslim schools he launched in London. He even cut an Islamic children’s album, A Is For Allah. Still, his songwriting has resonated through the decades; He was named ASCAP’s Songwriter Of The Year in ’05 and ’06 for his eternal “First Cut” classic.

The artist’s beard has grown from beatnik-scraggly to muezzin-mighty. And his worldview has similarly expanded. “When I wrote ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ it was a very naive theme of seeking space for children in this incredibly technological environment where there seemed to be no green space left,” he concludes. “And now, after so many years, I’ve done so many things which I’d dreamt of doing. I’ve got that playground for kids—I’ve actually got it. So I’ve got kids who are growing up with a sense of awe and wonder about this universe. ‘No city should be too large for a man to walk out of in the morning,’” he says, quoting Cyril Connolly. “And that’s the kind of philosophy I’m trying to bring back with this record.”

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