Playing God's Music; the Artist Formerly Known as Cat Stevens Seeks an Islamic Alternative to Hip Hop

Article excerpt

Byline: LESLEY GARNER

WHEN Yusuf Islam was in his Cat Stevens incarnation, back in the early Seventies, he was on holiday in Marrakech - a favourite pop-star destination.

"It was around midnight and I heard this music going on, very mysterious," he says. "So I went out to try to find it and I asked someone in the street, 'What's that music?' And he said, 'That is music for God.' And I thought, music for God? I'd never heard that before - I'd heard of music for money, music for fame, music for personal power, but music for God!"

Music for fame and money was what he was into at the time, but, with hindsight, even his hugely popular songs were part of a slow, unfolding pattern that has led Yusuf Islam to where he is now: a Muslim convert and an innate musician who has learned, slowly and cautiously, to accept that music doesn't have to be rejected along with the rock-star trappings. Music can be for God, and that is now the only kind he makes.

The Yusuf Islam who met me is a relaxed and friendly man with a sense of humour, dressed in stylish black clothes and a silver belt. This is a mature, integrated version of the sincere spiritual seeker that I once met, at the height of his fame, as a surprisingly serious, shy young man. He then became, famously and inexplicably, an intense and austere Islamic convert who refused to look interviewers in the eye. When Yusuf Islam rejected showbusiness, even the music stopped.

But it's all handshakes, eye contact, jokes and coffee as he talks about his new release, a compilation of Islamic songs, In Praise of the Last Prophet.

He sings on four of the 14 tracks, the rest being a mix of artists from the Islamic world - Algeria, Malaysia, South Africa, Turkey. "If you travel the Muslim world you hear these songs everywhere. Some are new, some are traditional. They have a hymn-like quality. We use no instruments because we're trying to please the mainstream market - in Saudi Arabia they wouldn't use stringed instruments. Our aim is to fill a need which exists in the musical world for an Islamically acceptable alternative to hip hop."

He laughs as he says this because, as the father of five children from 22 to 14, he knows what the culture is up against. His children, by the way, enjoy his own back catalogue and prefer tuneful music, songs from the Seventies and even the Fifties. "Crooning," he says, "easy listening." And he loves the fact that in London's mixed-race schools children have been heard chanting his Islamic songs in the playground rather than nursery rhymes. …