The philosopher of melodies
Yusuf Islam speaks to Neos Kosmos about his musical journey, his Greek identity, his thoughts on the Cyprus issue and the real message behind his latest artistic endeavour, the musical Moonshadow
An aura of utter peace and tranquillity glows on his face. Every single move he makes, from the warm handshake to the welcoming gesture of inviting me to take a seat, encompasses - in a very distinct way - the harmonious precision and melodic sweetness of his music. His presence reminds me of those wise old men that live in fairy tales, yet Yusuf Islam - the man who became famous as the master of melodies, Cat Stevens - is real. While in Melbourne for the world premiere of his musical Moonshadow he gives Neos Kosmos readers the privilege of sharing his thoughts with them.
His music, his life journey, his philosophical stance through his life, the extent to which his ethnic identity dictated his life choices as well as the Cypriot issue emerged as the most intriguing themes in our conversation. With a serene but captivating smile reigning over his face, and the thought that the courage and explorative spirit of this living legend should be portrayed in the most faithful way, we begin our conversation ...
Moonshadow: a personal story
EP: Moonshadow is the first musical of your career and comes at the age of 64. The hero of the story is in search of the light, of hope. Did your life journey inspire you to write the script of Moonshadow?
YI: It is reflective of my journey in many respects and that's because the songs themselves tell a story. You see, I was never disconnected from the message in my songs; I live my music, live my words and that's how I got to write those songs because they are part of my story. In Moonshadow my hero, after a very big battle, finds the light within himself. That's a very big part of it. There is one of the sayings in the musical that to be what you must, you must give up what you are - and that's only natural. If you do the same things today the same way you did yesterday you'll end up with the same results. If you want something different you have to do something different; and so there is that element of change. We - human beings - tend to like to sit at the same table. Breaking habits is part of our explorative nature and that's what is very important to human kind. If we don't go beyond our normal comfort zone, we may never learn anything.
The other message is about the family because in the story there are families that don't like each other but they don't know why, because it is like historical and it is just inherited hatred and therefore there is a point where the world can change when people start to see each other as they are themselves. Looking at each other like you are looking at your brother or your sister or your family, as it is said in the story: "When everything else in this world is broken the first place to fix is the home". So there is a big story there about brothers and sons and I do adhere to those messages.
Exploring life through music:
EP: Months before you converted to Islam, and while visiting Morocco you were fascinated by the ritual call to prayer from the local Imam. When this was described to you as "music for God" you said in a previous interview that you got somewhat surprised and that you'd never heard that before. You said: "I always thought that there was music for money, music for power, music for fame". So what is music for you these days?
YI: Music for me now is really a part of my agenda for creating better harmony and better understanding. Because now if you go to a show you see lots of people from different kinds of backgrounds, different kinds of religions, ages, coming around one thing. That is the beauty of the art itself, of music. Music is to do with harmony. We close our ears when we hear discord. We open our ears, we open our hearts when we hear harmony and I've always been a lover of melody. I've never stopped loving melodies. I mean a song without melody for me, forget it, I don't care. For me music is the art of surprise. There must always be a surprise, it can't just be the expected like the Eurovision song contest. When you see that, you see the same thing. Okay, they are dressed differently, but actually it is the same thing. So I love the art of surprise; that to me is music.
Music is also a healer, I think when I went back and started singing my old songs I started feeling better myself, you know and I started singing Peace Train with a completely different dimension, with a new dimension of having you know, actually found something myself. So music is really communicating, and that is a big job.
Names and identity:
EP: You've changed your name four times, you were born Demetrios Steven Georgiou, you became Steve Adams at the start of your career, then Cat Stevens and now Yusuf Islam. It seems that you are at ease going through name changes, unlike other people who see their name as an integral part of their identity. What does a name mean for you?
YI: I think it's a symbol. In fact my first name was interesting, because in reality I had five names. I learned here from my sister-in-law Maria who lives in Melbourne that originally I was called Dimitri, my first name was Dimitri Georgiou and then my dad got upset with his brother whose name was Dimitri and when he got back to London he got me christened again as Steven. So my name changes, as you see, started very early in my life. So I still got Dimitri, Steven Georgiou and then I took my father's grandfather's name Adamos and for a while, Steve Adams, and then I went on to adopt Cat because as I felt that in the music business you need something to catch people's attention and that certainly did the job.
When I discovered Islam what I really discovered was that the unity within Islam was the prophetic history and I found Joseph. More clearly than I ever saw it before in the Bible, I saw his story as a symbol in some sense of my story - of having being sold in the market - but having been raised again and given fantastic position.
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