[4 June 2009]
Cat Stevens fell in love with the Islamic faith shortly after his brother gave him a copy of the Qur’an as a gift following a near-death experience where Stevens nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu, California in 1976. He formally converted two days before Christmas in 1977, taking the name Yusuf Islam. He would record one more secular album, 1978’s Back to Earth, before turning his back on his career and life as Cat Stevens altogether, spending the next three decades as a devout follower of the teachings of Allah on a deep, spiritual search for a sense of inner peace within himself, a solace he had been yearning for in song since his 1970 A&M debut, Mona Bone Jakon.
“I had found the spiritual home I’d been seeking for most of my life”, Yusuf told Rolling Stone magazine in June of 2000 shortly before embarking on a U.S. speaking tour that year. “And if you listen to my music and lyrics, like ‘Peace Train’ and ‘On the Road to Find Out’, it clearly shows my yearning for direction and the spiritual path I was travelling”.
One of the primary reasons Islam/Stevens went on that speaking tour across America was to offer his fans stateside a better understanding behind his Muslim conversion, which had been met here with a puzzling amount of scorn, mockery, and ridicule that saw his songs banned from both AOR and pop radio, and even prompting 10,000 Maniacs to pull their rendition of Stevens’s Teaser and the Firecat hit “Peace Train” from their 1989 classic In My Tribe. Yet while many tried to demonize his conversion, Yusuf quietly weathered the storms of controversy, the brunt of which was the unfounded theory that he supported the Ayatollah of Iran’s bounty on the head of author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses and getting absurdly accused by the Bush Administration of supporting terrorism, leading to his deportation from the United States in 2004. Nevertheless, he utilized his status in the Muslim faith for good, donating his royalties as Cat Stevens to fund philanthropic and educational causes within London’s Islamic community, such as founding several primary and secondary Muslim schools for children and serving as the Chairman of his own Small Kindness charity, which aids orphans and families in such war- and weather-ravaged countries as Indonesia and Iraq. He even offered a public statement of regret and solidarity almost immediately after the September 11 attack on America, stating “that no right-thinking follower of Islam could possibly condone such an action. The Qur’an equates the murder of one innocent person with the murder of the whole of humanity ... I hope to reflect the feelings of all Muslims and people around the world whose sympathies go out to the victims of this sorrowful moment”. These acts of good will are certainly, by any stretch of the imagination, unlike those of someone who ought to have been placed on the United States’ “No Fly” list, refuses to speak to women who are not wearing a veil, and be labeled a terrorist sympathizer.
So perhaps in order to help folks stateside achieve a greater understand of who Yusuf Islam is, not only as a person but as an artist post-Cat Stevens, he made a return to the world of secular music after largely recording strictly religious music throughout most of the ‘90s. After releasing his well-received proper rock album under his Muslim name, 2006’s An Other Cup, Yusuf once again returns to the national spotlight with what is arguably his finest album since Catch Bull at Four. Entitled Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night), the album finds Yusuf reverting back to the English folk whimsy of his most revered work, 1970’s Tea for the Tillerman and 1971’s aforementioned Teaser, whereas An Other Cup served as an extension of the overtly melodic work he was creating as Cat Stevens before his religious conversion, such as 1974’s Buddha and the Chocolate Box and 1977’s Izitso. And while his voice is a little more weathered than it was 35 years ago, it nevertheless remains a most remarkably distinct timbre against the grain of these eleven beautiful tunes, produced by Islam with Martin Terefe. Terefe, known for his board work with the likes of such modern day MOR acts as James Morrison, Martha Wainwright, and Ron Sexsmith, can arguably put Roadsinger down as his singular triumph as a record producer. Morrison, former sorority pop queen Michelle Branch, and country music progeny Holly Williams (granddaughter of Hank, Sr.), also contribute via backing vocals.
Lyrically, Roadsinger takes on a largely autobiographical tone that pertains Stevens’s transformation to Yusuf Islam, while finally bringing his two disparate public characters face-to-face (the telling album cover portrays the bearded Islam busking underneath the dim light of a street lamp in a city that could be either Manhattan or Islamabad, flanked by an old Volkswagen bus with its VW logo modified into a peace sign). Most of the songs can be perceived thematically as hymns of devotion to Allah and the Muslim faith, particularly the extremely Cat-esque opening number “Welcome Home”, where he paints a portrait of a seeker traveling across hostile lands bringing with him a sense of peace that inspires soldiers to draw down their arms and strangers to serenade him inside a crowded marketplace. Elsewhere, “The Rain”, though originally written in 1968, could easily apply to the current tumultuous behavior of the Earth he so loves and the fear global warming has brought to its people: “Everybody’s thinking about the flood / Wonder if the water’s gonna turn to blood”. However, he also offers glimmers of hope for a more peaceful tomorrow, as he sings on “World O’ Darkness”: “Evil rules by night / But somewhere in the shadows, someone’s seeking light.”
Yet ultimately, Roadsinger offers very similar themes to those that Islam has been singing about since the Cat Stevens days: traveling, soul searching, and finding happiness. Only here, these themes are augmented by a shimmering wash of spirituality that utilizes the sound of Yusuf’s past to promote and encourage the train of thought that propels him today. It’s a beautiful duality of self punctuated by the opening lyric in the song “To Be What You Must”, where Islam proclaims, “I have journeyed, endless miles / Seen many others, where I took rest a while / On this boat called “near and far / To be what you must, you must give up what you are.”
“I’m back to doing what I do best,” Yusuf explains in a public statement published on his MySpace page, “painting pictures with music and storytelling on a very human, personal, intuitive level through lyrics and song, so I can help people feel good again.”
With Roadsinger, he achieves that goal with magnificent results. And all we can do is thank his son for bringing that acoustic guitar back into the family home, which helped Yusuf to finally let the “Cat” out of the bag once again in a time when the world needs his message of positivity more than ever before. Not to mention the greater understanding of the Muslim faith that he hopes to bring to the masses too scared of the minor percentage who use the religion as a weapon to truly appreciate it.