Between Folk and Islam: Yusuf/Cat Stevens at 70 | Music | DW | 20.07.2018
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Music

Between Folk and Islam: Yusuf/Cat Stevens at 70

When Cat Stevens suddenly converted to Islam and quit music in the midst of his folk-pop poet heyday, fans were left scratching their heads. But the septuagenarian has been reunited with his guitar in recent years.

Born Steven Georgiou on July 21, 1948 to a Greek-Cypriot father and Swedish mother, Cat Stevens was already a huge pop star when he almost drowned in the Pacific off Malibu Beach in 1976. Said to have prayed to God in that moment — he promised that "If you save me, I will work for you" — he claimed a wave then washed him back to shore. Two years later, Stevens converted to Islam, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and threw away his guitar.

But before that, Cat Stevens had been an icon of the hippy and flower power generation, a singer-songwriter who called for world peace and whose musical inspiration was lit by an incense stick — or perhaps a joint. Songs like "Morning Has Broken", "Moon Shadow" and "Peace Train" became worldwide anthems, while "Father And Son" remains a campfire classic.

Read more1968: A time for dreams and protests

Cat Stevens Yusuf (picture-alliance/dpa)

Cat Stevens at the height of his folk-pop poet fame in 1970

Teen idol

Stevens was 19 years old when he released his 1967 debut album, Matthew And Son, which went to number 6 on the UK charts and featured radio-friendly pop songs like "I Love My Dog" that were a far cry from the heartfelt folk ballads he would later become famous for. Though his follow-up album New Masters, released the same year, was less successful, the soft-voiced balladeer had become a teen idol overnight.

But the early fame was too much for him. Stevens contracted tuberculosis in 1969 and took a break from music, instead exploring his spirituality at a time when he also became a vegetarian and wrote numerous songs that turned away from the more sacharinne hit parade pop he was known for.

In April 1970, Stevens was back with a ragged beard and a raft of new material that drove a second wave of chart-topping success. He released around two records per year throughout the first half of the 1970s, among them celebrated titles such as 1970's Tea For The Tillerman, Mona Boe Jakon and Teaser And The Firecat. By 1978, he had already put out 13 albums. But the next radical career shift was about to begin.

"Sin and greed"

After his spiritual awakening caused by his near-drowning experience in the Pacific in 1976, Stevens was introduced to the Koran after his brother gave him a copy. This induction into the Muslim faith caused the 29-year-old to abruptly end his music career.

Stevens said he wanted nothing more to do with the "sin and greed" of the music business. Meanwhile, the lyrics in his earlier songs were no longer compatible with his new beliefs so he donated the royalties to charities.

Having changed his name to Yusuf Islam, he dedicated his new life to his beliefs and teachings. He married, fathered six children, founded three Islamic schools in London, and fought against the idea that the Muslim faith has engendered the spate of global terrorism since the September 11th attacks.

Nevertheless, Yusuf Islam often came under fire in those years. He had been suspected of supporting the death sentence issued by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini against the writer Salman Rushdie in 1989 — though he denies this. Meanwhile, he was deported and banned from traveling to Israel after he donated money to the Palestinian militant group, Hamas.

Cat Stevens Yusuf (picture-alliance/dpa/AFP)

Yusuf quoting from the Koran during the Arab-Islamic People's Conference in 1993 in Khartoum, Sudan

Return to his roots

The 1995 album The Life Of The Last Prophet was his first as Yusuf Islam. A kind of spoken-word celebration of Islam, the album did not feature the guitar, his former favorite instrument, as it was "too Western."

One day, however, Yusef Islam saw his son's guitar lying around. He could not help himself and reached for the instrument again. Slowly but surely he reappeared from his self-imposed musical exile.

Read moreCat "Yusuf" Stevens is back

Yusuf Islam made his first public appearance for 17 years in 1997, and played at charity festivals as he also released new records — some with the guitar. Meanwhile, he started to simply call himself "Yusuf," with his official artist name now Yusuf / Cat Stevens. 

Released in 2017, the folk legend's latest record is titled The Laughing Apple and is strongly reminiscent — both the cover and the music — of his breakout 1970 album, Tea For The Tillerman.

In this way, his latest musical offering actually closes a circle: Yusuf has been reunited with his past as Cat Stevens, and now, at the age of 70, can look back happily on both his lives.

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