The Cat That Sings
WHILE working with my 21 year old assistant, the song “Wild World” was played in a pipe-in music and while we were both humming to the same tune, I said that the original was even better, to which she replied: “Oh, you mean this isn’t the original?”
I was devastated.
And so here are my fingers, finding its own outlet.
Steven Demetre Georgiou, famously known around the world as Cat Stevens, is an English singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, educator, philanthropist who was renowned for songs like “Morning Has Broken, Father & Son, First Cut Is The Deepest,’ and “Wild World,” to name a few.
“Wild World” appeared on his fourth album, Tea for Tillerman, which he wrote and sang. “Mona Bone Jakon” was his first album and was released after a debilitating year of recovery from tuberculosis. As he convalesced, Stevens filled his time whilst still on bedrest, finding himself becoming a far more prolific songwriter, and after such a dramatic brush with death began to focus on his purpose in life after some unpleasant and stressful dealings with his previous record label.
Andy Warhol discovered Patti D’Arbanville during a gig as a club disc jockey when she was 13, and cast her at age 16 in his 1968 film Flesh. Years later, she pursued a career as a model in London, where she met Cat Stevens and they developed a romance. She was the inspiration for at least two of his hit songs: “Lady D’Arbanville”, and “Wild World” and the two were a pair throughout a period of two years or so.
Now that I’ve lost everything to you
You say you want to start something new
And it’s breaking my heart you’re leaving
Baby I’m grieving …
Which is why if you actually spent time to read his words, you wouldn’t call it music. It’s sheer poetry.
And if you’re Indonesian, which is home to the largest Moslem population in the world, you should all the more find reason to admire him, for being one of the most popular convert in the entire Western hemisphere, next to Mohammad Ali.
Back in 1977, at the peak of his career, while on holiday in Marrakech, Morocco, Stevens was intrigued by the sound of the Aḏhān, the Islamic ritual call to prayer, which was explained to him as “music for God”. Stevens said, “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!”
Stevens’ near death experiences had led him to his spiritual path, especially when he nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu, California, where he shouted: “Oh God! If you save me I will work for you.” He related that right afterward a wave appeared and carried him back to shore. This brush with death intensified his long-held quest for spiritual truth. He had looked into “Buddhism, Zen, I Ching, Numerology, tarot cards and Astrology” but when Stevens’ brother, David Gordon, brought him a copy of the Qur’an as a birthday gift from a trip to Jerusalem, he took to it right away, and began his transition to Islam.
During the time he was studying the Qur’an, he began to identify more and more with the name of Joseph, a man bought and sold in the market place, which is how he says he had increasingly felt within the music business. Regarding his conversion, in his 2006 interview with Alan Yentob, he stated, “to some people, it may have seemed like an enormous jump, but for me, it was a gradual move to this.”
Stevens formally converted to the Islamic religion on 23 December 1977, taking the name Yusuf Islam in 1978. Yusuf is the Arabic rendition of the name Joseph. He stated that he “always loved the name Joseph” and was particularly drawn to the story of Joseph in the Qur’an. Although he discontinued his pop career, he was persuaded to perform one last time before what would become his twenty-five year musical hiatus. Appearing with his hair freshly shorn and an untrimmed beard, he headlined a charity concert in Wembley Stadium to benefit UNICEF’s International Year of the Child.
Muslim Faith and Music Career
Following his conversion, Yusuf abandoned his music career. When he became a Muslim in 1977, he said, the Imam at the mosque was told that he was a pop star, and he told Yusuf that it was fine to continue as a musician, so long as the songs were morally acceptable. But Yusuf says he knew there were aspects of the music business, such as vanity and temptations, that did go against the teachings of the Qur’an.
Yusuf gradually resumed his musical career in the 1990s. He invited and collaborated with other Muslim singers, including Canadian artist Dawud Wharnsby. After Yusuf’s friend, Irfan Ljubijankic, the Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was killed by a Serbian rocket attack, Yusuf appeared at a 1997 benefit concert in Sarajevo and recorded a benefit album named after a song written by Ljubijankic, I Have No Cannons That Roar.
Realizing there were few educational resources designed to teach children about the Islamic religion, Yusuf wrote and produced a children’s album, A Is for Allah, whiche he had written years before to introduce his first child to both the religion and the Arabic alphabet. He also established his own record label, “Jamal Records”, and Mountain of Light Productions, and he donates a percentage of his projects’ proceeds to his Small Kindness charity, whose name is taken from the Qur’an.
On the occasion of the 2000 re-release of his Cat Stevens albums, he explained that he had stopped performing in English due to his misunderstanding of the Islamic faith, saying:
“This issue of music in Islam is not as cut-and-dried as I was led to believe … I relied on heresy, that was perhaps my mistake.”
Yusuf has reflected that his decision to leave the Western pop music business was perhaps too quick with too little communication for his fans. For most, it was a surprise, and even his guitarist, Alun Davies said in later interviews that he hadn’t believed that Stevens would actually go through with it, after his many forays into other religions throughout their relationship. Yusuf himself has said the “cut” between his former life and his life as a Muslim might have been too quick, too severe, and that more people might have been better informed about Islam, and given an opportunity to better understand it, and himself, if he had simply removed those items that were considered harām, in his performances, allowing him to express himself musically and educate listeners through his music without violating any religious constraints.
But after repeated encouragement from within the Muslim world, Yusuf once again recorded “Peace Train” for a compilation CD, which also included performances by David Bowie and Paul McCartney. He performed “Wild World” in Nelson Mandela’s concert with his former session player Peter Gabriel, the first time he had publicly performed in English in 25 years.
With his earnings from his Cat Stevens music, he decided to use his accumulated wealth and ongoing earnings from his music career on philanthropic and educational causes in the Muslim community of London and elsewhere. He founded the Islamia Primary School in Salusbury Road in the north London area of Kilburn and, soon after, founded several Muslim secondary schools; Yusuf set up The Association of Muslim Schools (AMS-UK), a charity that brought together all the Muslim schools in the UK. He is also the founder and chairman of the Small Kindness charity, which initially assisted famine victims in Africa and now supports thousands of orphans and families in the Balkans, Indonesia, and Iraq.
11 September 2001
Immediately following the 11 September 2001, attacks on the United States, he said:
I wish to express my heartfelt horror at the indiscriminate terrorist attacks committed against innocent people of the United States yesterday. While it is still not clear who carried out the attack, it must be stated 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. We pray for the families of all those who lost their lives in this unthinkable act of violence as well as all those injured; 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.
He appeared on videotape on a VH1 pre-show for the for New York City, condemning the attacks and singing his song “Peace Train” for the first time in public in more than 20 years.
Philanthropic and Humanitarian awards
- “World Social Award” for “humanitarian relief work helping children and victims of war”.
- Man for Peace Award presented by Mikhail Gorbachev for his “dedication to promote peace, the reconciliation of people and to condemn terrorism”, the ceremony was held in Rome, Italy and attended by five Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
- Honorary Doctorate by the University of Gloucestershire for services to education and humanitarian relief.
- The Mediterranean Prize for Peace in Naples, Italy. The award was received “as a result of the work he has done to increase peace in the world.”
- Honorary Doctorate (LLD) by the University of Exeter, in recognition of “his humanitarian work and improving understanding between Islamic and Western cultures”.
- Special Achievement Award of the German Sustainability Award.
Clearly, he has done more just by singing melodic hymns that resonate to this day, that has been covered by so many artists,for the understanding of Islam, for working for global peace, for helping the people, including Indonesians … than the entire FPI combined.