2020 Review

    2020 will go down as one of the most chaotic and challenging years in living memory. The Covid-19 pandemic has cast a dark shadow over the whole world and its ramifications will stretch long into the future. Many lives have been lost and many more have been thrown into turmoil as the global economy was essentially brought to full stop by governments attempting to tackle an invisible enemy that moved silently, swiftly and indiscriminately through our populations. It remains to be seen whether the engine can be successfully restarted but there is little to no doubt in anyone’s heart, the world we emerge into will be a very different place than the one we left behind.

    And yet, amid the wasteland of uncertainty and devastation there grows a small flower of hope. There is a chance that we will construct a fairer, more compassionate and brighter future for all. As we roll into 2021 let us have the courage to think about the good things to come and dare to dream of the world as one.

    January: Sadly, at the start of the year, chilling stories of human rights violations across the globe were emerging in the media. In particular, it became clear that the Rohingya Muslims were suffering crimes against humanity that even went as far as genocide. Yusuf adapted his song ‘My People’ to reflect these atrocities and put out a statement condemning the slide into xenophobia and hatred: The growing dangers of dark prejudice are becoming normalised: from China to Kashmir, from Myanmar to the once enlightened cities of Europe. When will people be allowed to just be who they are?

    In addition to this egregious violence, the Elazığ earthquake devastated a large area of Turkey with over 41 people losing their lives and wild bush fires tore uncontrollably through much of Australia. In both cases Yusuf lent his support both by speaking out and providing financial assistance through his charitable affiliations. 

    On a far more positive note, January of 2020 saw the long awaited release of the Back To Earth super deluxe box set which told the definitive story of one of the most transformative periods of Yusuf’s entire career. It was supported by a second previously unreleased track that didn’t make it onto the original album. Following on from ‘Toy Heart’, which came out in Nov of 2019, ‘Butterfly’ delighted fans with it’s upbeat and optimistic energy which was beautifully captured in the stunning lyric video directed by Matthew Robins.

    February: February was quiet however out on the edge of darkness Yusuf’s Peace Train had started to chug, building solar powered wells for remote communities in Australia, Pakistan, South Africa to work with organisations to feed the homeless and vulnerable. As well as establishing a partnership with Magic Breakfast to make sure kids we could support started the day off in the right way. 

    Away from the public gaze, plans were being worked on for a series of tours to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tea For The Tillerman. Though never fully announced, the plans were to cover Europe, Australia and North America in an ambitious schedule that would have taken up almost a third of the year. Shows were being booked and set lists formulated for what would have been a stunning celebration of one of the greatest albums of all time. 

    March: It wasn’t to be known at time but the Music for the Marsden charity gig in March would be Yusuf’s last live performance of the entire year. Curated by Gary Brooker of Procol Harum, the show saw Yusuf share the bill with the likes of Sir Tom Jones, Bonnie Tyler, Mick Hucknall, Eric Clapton and Van Morrison to name but a few of the stellar lineup. Yusuf had the whole of London’s O2 Arena singing along to ‘Wild World’ and for a rousing rendition of ‘Morning Has Broken’ he was joined on stage by Rick Wakeman who played piano on the original recording. The extravaganza raised £1 million for The Royal Marsden Hospital’s cancer charity.

    March also saw Yusuf’s first two albums, Matthew & Son and New Masters, reissued on vinyl for the first time since 1982. However, it was during this month that the news of Covid-19 well and truly broke around the world.

    April: In response to many governments imposing national lockdowns in an attempt to lessen the impact of the growing pandemic, Yusuf issued a message of peace: “In these days of isolation, we are being given an opportunity for a spiritual reset; to rise above the turbulence of the world, subdue our ego and reconnect with the Divine, in a state of peace.”

    Sadly, the holy month of Ramadan could not be observed with its usual emphasis on community and the shared experience of sincere and faithful worship. Yusuf joined the voices encouraging his fellow Muslims to pray at home and suggesting that the limitations of lockdown be transformed into an opportunity for a greater level of inward reflection and personal insight.

    With millions of people locked in their homes, Yusuf, like many artists of all levels, sought to do his bit to help alleviate the growing frustration and boredom by providing unique and encouraging online content. A delicate home recording of ‘The Wind’ brought joy to over 7.5 million people worldwide. 

    April also saw Yusuf take to the BBC airwaves with a special four part programme sharing his thoughts through words and music which exclusively gave people a chance to hear a previously unreleased song ‘Abraham’ from a future album release. 

    May: As lockdowns continued, AJ McLean of the Backstreet Boys performed a cover of ‘Wild World’ with a video that paid tribute to the emergency services and first responders who, along with delivery drivers, shop staff and other essential workers, were demonstrating that despite being some of society’s lower earners, they were the very backbone of our communities. Yusuf released his second home performance video, this time of the song ‘Home’ which could hardly have been more appropriate. He accompanied the song with the message: “I know that some of you right now may have been ‘driven up the wall’ and severely tested because of this global lockdown. So as you hear this, I need you to know it is not necessarily a place of this world, but another more perfect one I’m attempting to fly my kite to.”

    May saw a rare ray of sunlight in the year as it was announced that on September 18th Yusuf would be releasing Tea for the Tillerman², a re-recording of his seminal 1970s masterpiece. Fans were treated to their first taste of what was to come by being able to stream the new version of ‘Where Do The Children Play?’

    June: In June Yusuf released the first of a sequence of incredible music videos to support the upcoming release of Tea for the Tillerman². Director Chris Hopewell employed an environmentally conscious approach to the making of his visually arresting stop-motion animated music video with 90% of the props and scenery made from recycled materials – much of which was gathered in a single day from a beach clean. The thinking behind the project was entirely in concert with the message of Yusuf’s song which, despite being 50 years old, feels like it could have been written today to address the plight of our precious planet. Sadly, far too little has changed.

    Tragically, in June Yusuf had to announce the cancellation of his Tillerman50 tour. With the global pandemic showing no signs of being brought under control all manner of entertainment and sporting events were forced to suspend activity. Although clearly devastating to the performers and the audiences, some of the biggest victims of these cancellations were and continue to be the crew and support staff who work tirelessly to make these events happen. Our hearts go out to them, they are the very lifeblood of the live music and entertainment industries. 

    It was at this point during the year, with live performances out of the question, that Yusuf embarked upon a rigorous promotional campaign for his new album. In June alone he appeared on the ITV News, RNZ, CBC’s Q, CBS Sunday Morning and the BBC’s One Show. During his appearance on the ITV news he referenced one of the few positives that resulted from lockdown, that being the ecological recovery that was being seen as the natural world received a much needed break from human activities: “This whole Covid-19 has made us aware of what a beautiful world we’ve got. Now the skies are clearing up and we’re beginning to see flowers we never saw before and birds we never saw before.”

    July: In July Yusuf continued his promotional activities. He announced his support for the campaign of Plastic Free July, revealed to the Radio Times that he had been snubbed from performing at Live Aid, and in introducing a special live performance of ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ on the Forbes website, again raised the issue of the environment: “Here’s a song I wrote about 50 years ago related to the imbalances of this world, particularly arising from the over-consumerism which we’ve brought upon ourselves. It just seems as if the world hasn’t grown up after 50 years.”

    July 2020 was the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide that occured during the Bosnian war. Yusuf was instrumental in providing aid to some of the most vulnerable victims in the conflict’s immediate aftermath and marked the occasion with a thought provoking question: “Isn’t it time the world addresses that other diabolical and corrosive pandemic threat to our humanity: wilful prejudice?” 

    In his annual Eid message Yusuf again encouraged followers of Islam to take what positives they could from the pandemic: Due to the pandemic, many pilgrims around the world cannot travel to Makkah this year. At a time of great challenge, we pray for the strength to prevail through this. Let us give thanks for our health and renew the bonds to our human family and to the whole network of life on this precious planet.”

    August: In August, the Cambridge Folk Festival, which Yusuf had been scheduled to headline as part of his Tillerman50 tour, was turned into an online festival in conjunction with the BBC Folk Festival. Yusuf provided video footage of performances from his 2017 Australian tour as well as brand new home recordings of ‘On The Road To Find Out’ and ‘Where Do The Children Play?’

    The world was shocked by an horrific explosion in the port of Beirut in Lebanon on August 4th. Yusuf’s charitable initiatives provided invaluable aid following the blast and Yusuf spoke of his horror at the terrible incident: “Like most, my heart feels broken having seen and heard the terrifying accounts of pain and devastation caused by the blast in Beirut.” 

    On August 8th Yusuf celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Plumpton Jazz & Blues Festival, his first live appearance with Alun Davies that marked the start of the seminal period of his career. Two days later he released the second single taken from Tea for the Tillerman². Speaking of the new version of ‘On The Road To Find Out’ Yusuf stated: “I like the gritty desert blues sound of my new version; it echoes the dangerous mood of the world out there.”

    In a moment of deep personal sadness for Yusuf and his entire family, on 27th his brother-in-law Alexander Zolas passed away. He was a loving husband to Yusuf’s older sister Anita Zolas for over 50 years. Friends, family and fans all paid tribute to a remarkable gentleman who will be missed tremendously.

    In a continuation of his promotional campaign for Tea for the Tillerman², Yusuf appeared on Russell Brand’s Under The Skin podcast. The two men shared a genuine rapport as they discussed aspects of faith, fame and the nature of existence.

    September: On September 7th Yusuf and Fawziah celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary, a remarkable and exemplary achievement. The announcement on social media triggered an outpouring of love and respect for the happy couple.

    September also saw the release of the third single taken from Tea for the Tillerman². The brand new version of Yusuf’s classic hit ‘Father & Son’ brought Yusuf together with Cat Stevens – his younger self recorded in 1970 – for a deeply moving duet. The accompanying video, again directed by the incredible Chris Hopwell, played out the scene of the father and son’s dialogue with detailed and nuanced references to Yusuf’s own life. The marriage of the new song and the video results in a truly moving experience.

    Finally on September 18th Yusuf released his much anticipated new album, Tea for the Tillerman². Critics and fans were delighted by the new interpretations of the collection of beloved songs infused with the experience and wisdom that Yusuf has acquired in the intervening half century. On Sept 25th the album reached number 4 in the official UK album charts, Yusuf’s highest chart position since 1976.

    Yusuf continued his rigorous promotional activities for the album including a specially recorded performance of ‘Wild World’ for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and a charming appearance on BBC Radio 2’s Desert Island Discs. He chose Stevie Wonder’s ‘As’ as his top track and Bendicks Bittermints as his luxury item – prompting the company to send him a gratefully received hamper of their chocolates. In an interview for Rock Cellar magazine Yusuf articulated some of his deepest thoughts about his career: “I was on a secret mission, perhaps not everybody could see it, but through my words they can find my story and my longings and yearnings for peace and enlightenment.” 

    October: In October Yusuf lent his support to the School Breakfast Bill in the UK that aims to ensure that no child goes to school without a decent breakfast. The Bill has the potential to change the lives of millions of children in the UK and Yusuf made it clear how seriously he takes the issue: “To have children going to school hungry is just unbelievable”

    Later in the month he released the fourth single from Tea for the Tillerman², a revamped version of ‘Wild World’ with an Argentine Tango feel that conjures images of black and white classic films. The song’s music video played upon this theme casting children in a Casablanca style setting and exploring themes of power and control. Yusuf explained the artistic objectives of the piece: “The film shows how much we need art to direct our thoughts sometimes towards inexpressible goals; to relive early childlike innocence and keep our eyes of hope open beyond the clouds of war and darkness.” 

    On Oct 23rd Yusuf released two previously unreleased demos as he announced that December would see super deluxe box sets for both of his albums from 1970, Mona Bone Jakon and Tea For The Tillerman. ‘I Want Some Sun’ and ‘Can This Be Love?’ gave a tantalising peek at the wealth of rare and unseen material for fans to discover.

    October 29th saw Yusuf celebrate the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by releasing a home video performance of ‘Tala’a Al-Badru ‘Alayna’ (The White Moon Rose Over Us) sung in Arabic. The song is a traditional Islamic poem known as nasheed that was sung for the Prophet Muhammad by the local community upon his arrival to Medina. Yusuf’s performance was warmly embraced by all of his fans and supporters.

    On 30th of October both Turkey and Greece were struck by a terrible earthquake with over 116 known to have died. Having deep ties to both nations, Yusuf conveyed his deep sympathies and called for unity in what can be a strained relationship between the two nations: “When a harsh wind blows flags unite. The earthquake that has hit Turkey and Greece is a reminder that we are one human family, both feel like home to me. I pray this moment brings about more closeness and shared empathy to these two beautiful and complex neighbouring nations.”

    November: To continue the build up of excitement around the forthcoming box sets for Mona Bone Jakon and Tea For The Tillerman, Yusuf released a stunning original video for ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ that had been lost for almost half a century. The black and white piece features Yusuf and Patti D’Arbanville – the American model/actress who inspired the song in a Gothic mansion. Fans were elated to be given access to this most precious treasure.

    In addition to the ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ video Yusuf also made a recording of ‘Father and Son’ live at The Troubadour in 1970 and previously unreleased demos of ‘Maybe You’re Right’ and ‘If You Want To Sing Out’ available to stream.

    December: The Tea For The Tillerman and Mona Bone Jakon box sets were released on December 4th. Yusuf had a personal hand in all elements of the design and ensured that they are the most luxurious and comprehensive collections of two of his most important albums. Fans and critics were blown away by their level of detail and exquisite quality and special video footage of ‘Lady D’Arbanville’ and ‘Katmandu’ recorded in 1971 for Pop Deux in France was released to mark the occasion.

    As a most challenging year, in which millions had their lives turned upside down, drew to a close, Yusuf took the opportunity of appearing on CNN with Christine Amanpour to express the importance of music at such troubling times: “We need music, we really do. When we have nothing else and we have the chance to raise our spirits with a song, you’ve got to do it.”

    On December 5th, to celebrate Tea For The Tillermn’s 50th anniversary as well as the remarkable impact of Yusuf’s broader musical legacy, performances by over 40 bands and musicians including the likes of Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson, HAIM, Brandon Boyd of Incubus, Passenger and James Morrison taken from the entire Yusuf / Cat Stevens catalogue were broadcast in a special YouTube event named the CatSong Festival. The captivating show demonstrated the enduring quality and ongoing relevance of a stunning body of work by one of the true greats of popular songwriting. Yusuf was understandably moved: It’s great to see and hear these covers of my songs given new life. There’s no better honour for a songwriter than to have his songs performed by talented musicians with such love and sincerity. Thank you.

    Fans were excited to discover that a special range of eco tea and chocolate, made for Yusuf by Love Cocoa made its way into the prestigious department store, Liberty of London. A tree was planted for every bar of chocolate sold and the Tillerman tea contained a hint of cardamom, just how Yusuf likes it.

    With 2020 almost at an end, Yusuf posted a special Christmas message in which he drew attention to the presence of Mary, Jesus and the Angels in the holy Qur’an: The angels said, ‘Mary, God gives you news of a Word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, who will be held in honour in this world and the next, who will be one of those brought near to God. He will speak to people in his infancy and in his adulthood. He will be one of the righteous.’ She said, ‘My Lord, how can I have a son when no man has touched me?’ [The angel] said, ‘This is how God creates what He will: when He has ordained something, He only says, “Be”, and it is.

    (The Qur’an, 3:45-47)

    Happy New Year and Peace to you all
    Team Yusuf / Cat Stevens