- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Singer-songwriter Yusuf Islam enjoys the reaction he gets while driving through London in his 1960s Volkswagen van, a vehicle he recently had custom-painted with artwork from his days as the artist known as Cat Stevens, including images depicting classic hits including “Peace Train” and “Moonshadow.”

“Every time we rode that thing across town we’d get this amazing buzz. People would just look at it and smile, and that’s the kind of message I’m sending out with my music,” says the gray-bearded 60-year-old.

The VW van is displayed prominently on his new CD, “Roadsinger,” symbolizing his desire to fully embrace his Cat Stevens legacy. He is picking up where he left off almost 30 years ago, when he became a Muslim, changed his name, auctioned off his guitars for charity and walked away from the “Catmania” of pop stardom.

Yusuf, who uses only his first name, says he feels he can square his Muslim beliefs with a return to the introspective folk tale and storytelling songs that made Cat Stevens one of the most popular and best-selling artists of the ‘70s.

“I wanted to prove that there’s music in this Muslim,” Yusuf says, speaking by telephone from his headquarters in London, near one of the Islamic schools he founded.

“I think Muslims should work a little bit harder at making people a bit more at ease and to create an atmosphere of happiness, which is what we need. I think that’s what this record does; that’s what my music used to do, and it still does.” He spoke a few days before heading to Los Angeles, where he gave his first West Coast public performance in 33 years, mixing new tunes with past hits including “Wild World” and “Father and Son.”

Yusuf tested the waters with his 2006 comeback album, “An Other Cup,” his first collection of modern pop songs in 28 years. That record mixed Eastern and Western influences, using lots of new technologies with overdubbing that sometimes overshadowed his voice and guitar.

On “Roadsinger,” he says he has returned to the “very stripped-down musical approach” - with minimal overdubbing - that (after recovering from a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis) he adopted on his introspective 1970 folk-rock albums, “Mona Bone Jakon” and his breakthrough “Tea for the Tillerman.”

“A lot of people were very complimentary about ‘An Other Cup,’ and they were extremely surprised that I still sound like me. … The only other point they made was that they wished there were more of the bare-guitar-style songs which I used to do in the ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ days,” Yusuf says.

He adds that he had a further epiphany on a flight to the U.S. when he found himself enjoying an in-flight music channel featuring old hits from contemporaries such as Joni Mitchell, Carole King, James Taylor and Jackson Browne.

“I realized that I was so much a part of that sound and perhaps it wouldn’t be a sin if I just got back to doing some of that kind of style again,” he says with a laugh.

The album’s inviting opening song, “Welcome Home,” symbolizes his coming back to what he does well. The gentle piano melody of “Sitting” (from his 1972 album “Catch Bull at Four”) introduces a new song with the message “To be what you must/ You must give up what you are.” It sums up his own life’s spiritual journey.

Yusuf also deals with the prejudice he has encountered as a Muslim. “Roadsinger” is the tale of a troubadour who’s treated like a stranger when he returns to his hometown but then finds “the path to heaven” in a foreign land “in the desert sand.” (Yusuf spends part of the year in Dubai, which he describes as “a modern Muslim country with a futuristic approach.”)

Three of the songs - “World O’ Darkness.” “This Glass World” and “Shamsia” - were written for the musical “Moonshadow,” which Yusuf hopes to premiere in London’s West End next year. It’s a tale about a young boy’s journey from a world of perpetual nighttime in search of a world of light.

The musical takes Yusuf full circle to his pre-Cat Stevens days, when the young Steven Demetre Georgiou would hear the sound of music coming from theaters near his parents’ Moulin Rouge restaurant in the West End.

“Musicals were my first love, and then came the Beatles,” he says. “It seemed like ‘West Side Story’ just changed my life.

“Now, having the opportunity to put all that into a musical is quite a miracle.”

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