I remember . . .
. . . the restaurant my parents owned on Shaftesbury Avenue in London. My father was always up before dawn, getting in provisions. He was a hardworking man and we all learned from his example. My older brother, sister and I did every job you can imagine – chef, waiter, kitchen porter, washer-up. My father was originally from Cyprus but he had travelled the world before settling in London. My mother was Swedish and was a nanny in the UK. They met on a night out in the capital.
. . . the bright lights of the West End, the coffee bars, cinemas and theatres. Living in the centre of London quickly made me streetwise and opened me to its influences – musical and otherwise.
. . . that the Merseybeat inspired me and that by the time the Beatles appeared on the scene every-thing seemed possible. In the Sixties, people were full of hope for the future.
. . . my father gave me £8 [now $12] to buy my first guitar. But I found it hard to sing anyone else’s songs – there were so many chords! So from day one I started to write my own and they were different from what was out there at the time, more angular and lyrical. Songwriting is a craft and I have a knack of being able to tell stories this way, stories with a little twist to them.
. . . my first recording session in 1966. I played to the head of Decca Records and they decided to make “I Love My Dog” and “Matthew and Son”, two of the first releases on their progressive Deram label. It was my lucky break and mainly thanks to the producer Mike Hurst, who was one of the Springfields [with Dusty Springfield and her brother Tom]. He helped me scrape enough money together to fund the session. I was only 18, but he was convinced I had something special.
. . . two years later I was struck down with a life-threatening case of tuberculosis and dragged off to a hospital in the Sussex countryside. I’d been working really hard and over-doing everything. As I lay alone on my back, day after day, looking at the woods outside, something happened within my soul. I knew that there was more to life than what I’d been doing; there was a part about the spirit. By the time I recovered I had a whole new bunch of songs and a new vision.
. . . playing some of my new songs, including “Father and Son”, to Chris Blackwell of Island Records. He was overwhelmed and I signed with him in 1970. Paul Samwell-Smith of the Yardbirds became my producer and put me together with Alun Davies who complements me so well on guitar. We made a good contrast on stage – my dark curls and beard against his straight blond hair. Alun is a steady, earthy type while I’m more moonlit. Our relationship has endured for nearly 40 years.
. . . there was a lot of money around and things got more and more commercial. I made it big in the US but found it hard to balance my spiritual quest with my musical one. Playing live in front of 40,000 people isn’t conducive to much self-reflection.
. . . the wave that saved my life. I was staying with a friend in Malibu in 1976 and the sea looked so alluring I went for a swim. Suddenly I was caught in a riptide and it was impossible to swim back. My faith jumped right up to my heart and I called out, “God! Save me and I’ll work for you!” At that moment a friendly wave came from behind and swept me safely to shore. I felt like I’d been given a second chance.
. . . reading the Qur’an for the first time and how it changed my life forever. My brother gave me a copy for my birthday. I’d studied many other religions and philosophies but this was a revelation. I found it so profound and started to apply the teachings to my own life. The more I changed my conduct, the more amazing life became. It’s hard not to follow the crowd but I started to swim in another direction. I converted to Islam in 1977, changed my name in 1978 and, because in Islam there is only one way to enjoy a partnership (a novel idea to me before then), I married at the Regent’s Park Mosque in 1979.
. . . the peace of mind I felt at becoming a Muslim, a peace of mind I still feel today. I have learned who I am. This had always been a problem for me – I’d changed my name and style a few times before. We are responsible for our own actions and their effect on those around us. Try it for yourself. Go out and swear at somebody and watch his or her reaction. Speak gently and kindly and the response is different.
. . . the day I put down my guitar. It was to be 27 years before I played it again. Instead of music I became involved in education and charity work. I realised I was in a position to contribute to children’s development, to educate them with heart and spirit. I was very proud when my first Muslim school got grant aid. I’ve tried to look at many different ways of reaching out, bridging the gap between perceptions of Islam in the East and the West.
. . . picking up a guitar my son had brought home one day and knowing the time felt right to return to music. I’ve released two albums since 2006, An Other Cup and Roadsinger. Although there is a very conservative Muslim view of the dangers of music – to do with what music might be used for, rather than the art itself – I believe it is something natural and beautiful. I discovered it was the Spanish Muslims who introduced the guitar into Europe some thousand years ago, during a gloriously intellectual period of music and art.
. . . when I was refused entry to America in 2004. [Yusuf’s name was flagged as someone with “ties . . . to potential terrorist-related activities” and he was deported.] I tried to turn what could have been a sinister episode into something light. I thought, “God wants it to happen so let it happen.” I believe it all came down to the confusion in the spelling of my name but the media had a field day with it. I’ve had to develop a tough skin and a sense of humour. In the old days, if someone didn’t like my music, I’d be a little hurt, but when you have to live with a whole load of people thinking the worst of you, you’ve got to stay strong inside.
. . . in my song “On the Road to Find Out” I wrote, “Well, in the end I’ll know but on the way I wonder.” It sums up my journey as Cat Stevens and predicted the Yusuf Islam of today. When you set out with a plan in life and it doesn’t go quite right, it’s because God has a better plan for you. I always try to remember that.
As told to Caroline Hutton
3 of 10 Comments
|Cala on 13 March 2013 ,03:48 |
This is one of the best articles I've read about Yusuf! Very well written.
|Mohammad Taha Siddiqui on 05 February 2012 ,01:36 |
Every body should have to read it.
|saadia khalid on 24 January 2011 ,22:58 |
it is really heart warming, reading the experiences of Brother Yousaf Islam. It also carries a message for everyone, Muslims and Non Muslims, that is study the Holy Quran properly and Allah will guide you through all your problems.
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