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Yusuf Islam ... sounds a lot like Cat Stevens

Thirty years after the folk singer converted to Islam, changed his name and dropped out of music, calling it un-Islamic, he has picked up the guitar once more. He has reconciled pop music with his faith and wants to use it to spread a message of peace.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens, has quietly returned to music with a new album and concerts. And he’s sounding a lot like ... Cat Stevens.

Thirty years after the folk singer converted to Islam, changed his name and dropped out of music, calling it un-Islamic, he has picked up the guitar once more. He has reconciled pop music with his faith and wants to use it to spread a message of peace.

“When I come out now, I sound quite similar. For some people, it’s a welcome return to the sound of my voice and my music,” says Islam, who as Cat Stevens sold 60 million albums with songs like “Wild World” and “Peace Train.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Islam said he’s trying to make amends for dropping out all those years ago — and he admits he might have hurt some feelings. He said his break might not have been as complete had the press been more understanding about his conversion to Islam, he says.

“I walked away abruptly. Perhaps that had something to do with the reaction I received from the press at the time. I was given the cold shoulder,” Islam says, smiling.

“Now it’s the opposite. I don’t feel that same hostility. People appreciate that I’m (making music again) for a really good reason: to make peace and try and make people happy.”

“For some people (my disappearance) was a deep cut. I’m in a way trying to make amends. And the great thing is, I’ve still got music in me. It’s a gift. Even I’m surprised,” he said.

A low-key comebackThe 58-year-old, dressed in a blue denim button-down shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbow, spoke in a small Dubai office that doubles as a recording studio and the offices of Jamal Records, a label he co-owns. His salt and pepper hair is cropped short and tousled, and he sports a bushy gray-black beard and close-cropped mustache in the style of a pious Muslim.

So far, Islam’s comeback has been low-key. A concert airs on BBC TV April 29, and he is considering taking part in the Live Earth concert series, to raise awareness about climate change, planned for July.

Late last year, Islam launched his first pop album since his conversion in 1977. Titled “An Other Cup,” the folksy album includes a song he first wrote in 1968, “Greenfields, Golden Sands.” The other tunes on the CD, with those familiar smooth voice and guitar chords, sound a lot like the old Cat Stevens.

As Yusuf Islam, he had previously only recorded a handful of spoken word records on Islamic topics, some with percussion.

Dubai, where the singer lives part of the year (he spends most of his time in his native London), is where Islam’s return to music took place after his son bought a guitar in 2002.

“He brings it home and there’s this guitar in the house,” Islam says with a pause and a demure smile, eyes downcast. “I looked at it and, well, we just got back together again.”

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But he had already been moving back toward it, with a lot of study about the Prophet Muhammad’s attitudes toward music. He said he learned that a guitar or similar instrument was introduced to Europe by a 7th century Muslim musician who brought it from Baghdad to Muslim-ruled Spain.

“For a long time I had doubts about music. There’s a certain point of view among certain schools of thought in Islam that considers music too closely connected to hedonistic tendencies, you know, sex, drugs and rock and roll,” he says.

“But when you take it out of one context and put it in another context, which is connected to healing, spirituality, morality and family values, it’s wholesome good stuff,” he said. “That’s the kind of music the Prophet encouraged. And there’s evidence of that. So I came a long way through the study of music.”

Dubai is his safe havenIslam says he holds no grudges against U.S. immigration authorities who denied him entry into the United States in 2004 because his name appeared on a terror watch list. When he tried again in December, he got in no problem.

“It was worked out beforehand and I got a very warm welcome when I arrived that time,” he said with a chuckle. “I do believe it was some cranky mistake in their computers. Once a person’s name gets on that list nobody quite understands how to take it off. People are still suffering from that kind of thing.”

But Dubai, he says, is a safe haven from the craziness afflicting the United States. He mentioned the massacre at Virginia Tech, where a deranged student killed himself and 32 others.

“We’ve just been reading about what’s been going on in America. Can you imagine?” he says, a look of shock on his face. “There are certain comforts of living here in Dubai, the comforts of so many mosques and so much good food ... It’s just that much more secure. And may God keep it safe.”

Islam said his comeback has gotten a warm reception, and he wants to create a bridge to his old songs.

“A lot of people are nicely surprised to find it’s the same style of writing and the same melodic approach to songwriting,” he said. “A lot of my songs stand up today. They reflect the reality of my journey and my experience and my faults.”

In the concert airing on BBC, Islam was backed by a 12-piece band at London’s Porchester Hall, playing all the old hits. He did one other major gig since his hiatus, at New York’s Lincoln Center in December, to an invite-only crowd.

He said there is interest in his music now because the “tremendous conflicts that have been created by extremists” have created a longing for the peaceful sounds and positive messages of his songs, old and new.

“I don’t see it so much as a return as a fresh start. It’s a new era. Forty years have passed since my first record and times have definitely changed,” he said. “If John Lennon were alive he’d probably be singing something similar.”