11 - 17 2006
By Guildo Mingels
Translation courtesy of Lucy
Order To Be, You Must Give Up What You Are.”
Stevens is back. After 28 Years. An Interview.
in Universal's London office. Yusuf Islam,
58, known as Cat Stevens until 1979, who after
28 years' hiatus has once again made a secular
record with An Other Cup, sits in the interview
room and requests an audio cassette. He takes
care to record copies of interviews himself,
because he has had bad experiences with journalists,
but he has no cassette with him for his tape
recorder. Half the staff on the floor rush
around, searching, and this anecdote demonstrates
two things: in a record company in the year
2006, cassette tapes no longer exist, and
Yusuf Islam is technically still at the level
of Cat Stevens. Apart from this, everything
has changed in his life.
in 1948 in London, the son of a Swedish woman
and a Greek-Cypriot man, Cat Stevens recorded
a couple of albums about the year 1970, that
moved the world to tears and sold more than
50 million copies. They were songs about uninhibited
melancholy, words full of soul-searching,
love troubles and misunderstood existential
angst. A voice with sheer metaphysical presence,
possibly the most hypnotic in pop history.
Along with these came messages: save the trees,
let the children play, make peace. Many of
these songs have not grown out of date. Lady
D'Arbanville remains the perfect campfire
hymn, "Wild World" belongs in every
good karaoke establishment, "Father and
Son" and "The First Cut is the Deepest"
land in the charts roughly every other year
in a new cover version.. And schoolchildren
sing "Morning Has Broken" in their
early English classes.
every new convert, Yusuf Islam was pretty
radical at first. After his departure from
the music business, he sold all his instruments
and gold records, learned Arabic, founded
his Muslim schools in London and put his means
into charities. He entered into an arranged
marriage with a Muslim woman and had five
children. Once, when by chance he ran into
Patti D'Arbanville, his previous muse, he
spoke on religious grounds only through her
husband, who stood next to her. Only his voice
was to be heard on educational Arabic spoken-word
records, and he completely shunned the inclusion
of musical instruments. In 1989, he landed
in the headlines because of awkward remarks
he made, which gave the impression that he
supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie;
this he immediately withdrew, however. The
English paper, The Sun nevertheless ran the
headline, "Cat says: Kill Rushdie!"
and as a consequence, many radio stations
removed his songs from their playlists. In
the 90s's Yusuf Islam busied himself with
countless charity projects via the United
Nations - in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Iraq -
and took on an increasingly public role as
a leading spokesman for Islam. In 2003 he
received the World Social Award. Meanwhile,
the former popstar has published official
statements on his website regarding West-East
relations on many topics, whether it be the
Danish Mohammed caricature or the Pope's questionable
man from the record company gives some last
minute advice. No questions about politics
or Islam; this should be about music. The
freshly pressed CD lies on the table, a coffee
cup, in which a blue ocean glistens, decorates
the cover. The man who was once Cat Stevens
sits deep in a sofa, and is astonishingly
small, wearing a wool sweater, cords and a
faintly grey beard.
Islam, congratulations on your new album.
I have all your old records and…
call me Yusuf. You have all my records? Mona
Bone Jakon and all the later ones?
the earlier ones. Yusuf, would you say An
Other Cup is a comeback?
really. Because everything I did in my life
was a progression. With a constant view ahead.
Which doesn’t mean that one ignores
one’s past. I believe this album is
a further development of my earlier records,
my earlier thoughts and songs. It shows where
I stand today.
released this album under the name Yusuf,
but there are very many ties to your era as
Cat Stevens. There are cover versions of several
of your old songs, whereby in one case you
secularized the text, in which you translate
“girls” to “souls”.
song was originally a love song, now it concerns
a higher love, Godly love.
is back in your life. How does that feel?
great. I must say, it’s like a flood.
And I let myself be carried by this flood
and enjoy it very much.
over 20 years you almost completely denied
yourself music, on religious grounds. Why
the change now?
only recently came to a decision over the
use of musical instruments. Whether it is
allowed. Up until this point I was full of
doubts. Over the real definition. But there
are many different opinions in Islam regarding
this. There is no clear teaching. I took a
lot of time to be sure that I’m doing
the right thing. And I believe I got an answer
that’s very simple: that which brings
about good things is good, and that which
brings about bad things is bad.
only three years ago, during the Night of
Remembrance, a concert in the Royal Albert
Hall to celebrate the 20th anniversary of
your Islamic schools, you sang accompanied
only by percussion and an accapella choir.
What’s happened since then?
evening was a breakthrough for the Islamic
community in London. People are still talking
to me about it today, and they say it was
the best concert they had ever seen –
although perhaps one must say, that for many
of them this was the first time in their lives
that they had been to a concert. That evening
brought me closer to the music again. I saw
that the public was happy. I saw that the
people listened to my words. And I realized
that even the Muslim community wished for
me to continue. Most of all the youth. Because
here you have a problem: Islamic youth are,
in a sense, fairly disadvantaged and secluded,
based on cultural restrictions. Whereas these
prohibitions aren’t necessarily based
on Islamic doctrine, rather they developed
out of tradition.
for a long time you listened to bad advice?
listen to my heart. If you know my song, “The
Wind” from 1971…
know all of your songs.
listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul…
continues singing: I let my music take me
where my heart wants to go.] I distanced myself
from music because I had certain doubts. As
far as I’m concerned, these doubts are
now cleared up.
was it like, to be back in the studio again,
making pop music? Rock music?
wouldn’t call it Rock. Maybe not even
Pop. It’s contemporary music. Music
for today. Going back into the studio, for
me, was like going back home. I spent early
months in the recording studio, day and night.
For my family it was a bigger adjustment than
it was for me – they kept asking themselves,
“when he’s coming home tonight?”
of the songs on the record reputedly stem
from a musical named “Moonshadow”.
I’ve been working on this for years.
And I hope that one day it sees the light
of day. I hope so. But naturally we don’t
really have control over our own future.
new record is a part of your future?
yeah. Definitely. Obviously.
come the record is called “An Other
Cup” .. an other cup? What’s with
the space in “another”? Not even
your record company manager could explain
it to me.
little grammatical whim of mine. I wanted
people to understand that this record really
is an OTHER cup. Not just another cup. Rather:
An. Other. Cup.
cup is also to be found on the cover of Tea
for the Tillerman, from 1970. My most famous
album, and this small interval should show
that something happened in between. That we
live in another world. This CD is a new step,
and some consider it to be a very courageous
step. I’m building a bridge and I’m
going to try to walk on it. Many people fear
to tread on this bridge.
bridge between East and West.
The symbol of the coffee cup also references
the hidden treasures of Islamic civilization.
Coffee houses, the cafes that we find on every
corner are an invention of Muslims. They existed
even back in the 15th century in Istanbul
and even earlier in Yemen. So the cup becomes
a symbol of what we all share. Culture is
not something we fight over but something
that we share, that binds us. That’s
a different outlook than that of “clash
of civilizations.” The history of humankind
is one continuous stream.
a song on your record, “Midday”
whose refrain goes, “but avoid city
after dark.” Are you speaking here of
London? Your hometown? Lately this city has
become increasingly upleasant, particularly
for your fellow Muslims.
words are meant to be symbolic. It has to
do with light and darkness. The moon is a
symbol of light. That was always a theme in
my songs. The dark night represents our state
of ignorance; we don’t know what drives
the universe, where we come from, where we’re
going, but there’s always the moon,
its light, which can lead us to an answer.
also sing on your record, the Nina Simone
classic, “Please Don’t Let me
Be Misunderstood.” This is apparently
a message to the press, which has dealt you
The words are custom written for me. I’m
just a soul whose intentions are good.
are you thinking of, when you plead in this
song, not to be misunderstood?
day one, when I became a Muslim, many people
viewed this step as an unusual path and took
a negative attitude toward it. When you see
today, how the media – or certain media
-- portrayed me during all these years, it’s
indeniable. From day one. And these were people
who had no idea what I stood for when I was
Cat Stevens, and they understand even less
who Yusuf Islam is.
thinking of headlines such as “Cat Says:
Kill Rushdie,” about your…
not talk about that! Let’s not talk
not talk about that.
the song …
I were you, I’d change the subject.
favorite on your record is “The End.”
The piano part is a little reminiscent of
“Oh Very Young” Wasn’t that
the song that you were supposed to sing at
Bob Geldof’s Live Aid Concert in 1985,
but then you weren’t able to?
that was the song. It was the first song that
I wrote as Yusuf Islam. I would have sung
it for Live Aid but Elton went so far over
that there was no time left for me.
another version of this story, whereby the
arrangement of the lyrics wasn't permitted.
“You can’t argue with the truth,”
you sing, because after you die, everything
is revealed before God, all the good and all
the bad. Even I found the music nicer than
I got the feeling I was listening to a sermon.
are people, like you, who react in this way
to the song. Surely it’s the only song
on the CD that one could suggest is a little
preachy. Listeners should make their own judgment.
Maybe the song is simply unsettling for those
who have a bad conscience. [laughs]
it accurate to say you write religious pop?
think that it’s music that tries to
explain human nature. Naturally, I’m
completely convinced that man presses for
the truth. Some would call it religious. I
see my music as more in the context of humankind’s
striving for eternal happiness.
you look at old photos, when you were Cat
Stevens, don’t you sometimes think,
“was that really me?” How do you
reconcile Steven Demetre Georgiou, Cat Stevens,
and Yusuf Islam?
another song on the album that answers this
question. It has to do with butterflies that
leave their silk palaces. The metamorphosis
of a caterpillar into a butterfly is one of
the greatest mysteries of life. When I think
about the various phases of my life, I see
everything as a metamorphosis, as a constant
evolution, an unending search for happiness.
And that’s why it’s also on this
record. It doesn’t matter whether one
indicates these feelings as religious or not,
but what one can’t deny is the reality
that every human searches for happiness. Only
when it comes to what manner we arrive at
this happiness, that is perhaps when we come
to different views.
Stevens was the caterpillar. Yusuf is the
No. That was just a metaphorical example for
the evolution of life. Look at a human embryo.
It’s just a clot. It’s a clot
of blood. You were a clot of blood, I was
a clot of blood. And later this clot takes
on the form of an individual living being,
who becomes independent and believes it is
the master of its own fate.
don’t find that so astonishing. Science
known this for a long time…..
can’t say why I’m me and you’re
question, it occurs to me, you already posed
in 1970, in a song .. “I wish I knew,
I wish I knew. What makes me me, what makes
very good, that’s right. And the knowledge
that I gained in the meantime I try to express
in my music.
means: Cat Stevens posed the questions. Yusuf
has the answers?
But I’m at least a bit further along
than I was then.
your occupation today? Teacher? Musician?
Philanthropist? Cultural mediator?
not any one in particular. Certainly, I’m
many things. I’m a father. I’m
also a son. But I have a biography that’s
been more publicly documented than most people.
And that’s … a gift.
it’s also pushed you into the role of
ambassador for Islam. Today you are the most
well-known convert in the world and must answer
to this. Are you comfortable with this?
responsibility does weigh heavily. But it's
also a task that suits me well. Because all
I have to do is speak about it, what I have
done, and what I believe. I’m a mirror,
a magnifying glass, through which some Muslims
can see the West and the West sees Islam.
That means however, that I must remain pure
that it is. But apparently it’s been
ordained for me. Man must always be ready
for changes in his life. If you don’t
change yourself, life will change you. And
therein lies the key: everything that we see
in nature is in constant state of change.
Man has a tendency to hang on to what he has,
to become fixated.
you always tried to escape as Cat Stevens.
As soon as the public or the music industry
created an image of you, you made an about-face.
maybe. That reminds me of a wise saying, that
I picked up from a philosopher, he was called,
I believe, Eckhart…
Eckhart, a Christian mystic.
said, “In order to be, you must give
up what you are.” I believe that to
be very profound. Very profound. That’s
roughly what I did. Or possibly what I’m
do your Muslim community, the scholars, those
you listen to actually say, about your return
still remains to be seen. Sometimes scholars
make judgments in a vacuum. When you give
them something new, that they don’t
yet know, they first of all try to make references
to things that they know and to make judgments
accordingly. But in Islam there is also the
principle of the “common good. It means
the following: when one is confronted with
something that doesn’t have any guidance
in the scriptures, one should observe what
use it brings. Does it serve the common good,
does it protect the spirit, does it serve
God? When scholars see that it comes to something
good, then perhaps they will approve of what
I do. And today I believe that my songs as
Cat Stevens do good things for some people.
I’ve heard of several credible cases
of deeply troubled people who were considering
suicide, but when they heard Cat Stevens songs,
they changed their minds. And I think that’s
could have done away with oneself in style
listening to Sad Lisa.
it didn’t happen. At least not that
I know of.
does your son Mohammed like your new record?
likes it. And I listen to him. He’s
writes and plays music himself, doesn’t
yes, and he’ll be releasing his first
album, soon after mine. But he doesn’t
want me to reveal his stage name. He wants
to stand on his own two feet.
hardly be a secret that he’s the son
of Cat Stevens.
won’t be easy for him.
kind of music does he play?
would prefer not to be categorized. At any
rate, it’s not “heavy” what
he does. He’s a young man with a vision.
And he has a flair for music and he’s
written a couple of great songs.
question, Yusuf. I noticed that in younger
photos you sometimes have very dark and sometimes
grey hair. Do you dye your beard?
any more. Up until a while ago I did - yes,
as a matter of fact.
that allowed in the Koran?
come you don’t do it anymore?
couple of years ago, during one of my trips
to Mecca, I was in the Kaaba, the building
that the Prophet Abraham built. When I was
in this place, I contemplated that even Mohammed
had a few grey hairs in his beard. And I said
to myself, “you can’t do this
anymore.” Enough with the dyeing.
can’t bargain with the truth.
An Other Cup [Universal] is in stores as of
yesterday. At the same time, two new biographies
have appeared: a less worthwhile one (Albert
Eigner: Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam – Mit
Welthits auf dem Weg zu Allah) and a better,
but more difficult one to obtain, in English:
(George Brown: Cat Stevens The Complete Illustrated
Biography and Discography)