Cat-ch up on 2017
2017 proved to be a truly spectacular year for Yusuf / Cat Stevens. Indeed, with the release of The Laughing Apple, a hugely successful tour of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and with Yusuf becoming a grandad for the ninth time one might even go so far as to say that 2017 really ought to have been the Year of the Cat!
A key international issue at the start of 2017 was the ongoing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. The humanitarian disaster has been exploited for political gain and distorted to suit various agendas resulting in widespread confusion and fear. Tragically overlooked is the significant human cost of the situation. Desperate people are risking their lives every day to flee conflicts, violence, and other horrific dangers only to encounter resistance and rejection on the shores of Europe. As a champion of the vulnerable and in-need, Yusuf has been directly involved in the push to help with the human cost of the refugee crisis. In 2016 he organised the #YouAreNotAlone campaign and concert focussing in particular on the 100,000 or so children that were unaccounted for in the crisis and in 2017 Yusuf continued to use his status to draw attention to the awful situation. In January he had a closed-door meeting with President Erdoğan of Turkey for a little over an hour. Although the details of the discussion were private, Yusuf later praised Turkey on social media for having provided shelter for over 3 million refugees showing that love, compassion, and a calm head are the best tools in which to manage this tragedy.
In March we celebrated the 50 years since of the release of “Matthew & Son“, Yusuf’s debut album. It’s quite unbelievable to think that he has reached such a fantastic career milestone but ultimately it’s a testament to the enduring nature of his message and the timeless quality of his songwriting that his music has stood the test of time. In fact, “I Love My Dog“, Yusuf’s first single, was actually released at the back end of 1966, however, 1967 was when the first stage of his career, as a teen-idol, really took off!
Amongst the 50th anniversaries that were reached this year was the anniversary of The Walker Brothers Tour of 1967, a package tour which saw Yusuf share the bill with The Walker Brothers, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Jimi Hendrix. Although a somewhat bizarre line-up on the face of it, the tour was a hugely popular with fans and a significant landmark in Yusuf’s career. Yusuf has stated that it was on the tour that Engelbert introduced him to hard drink and that The Jimi Hendrix Experience introduced him too… well we don’t need to stray into too much detail, but it is fair to say that Yusuf got experienced!
In April, Yusuf’s book, “Why I Still Carry a Guitar“, was translated into Turkish and released in Turkey. Originally published in 2014, the book is a personal account of the reconciliation of Yusuf’s music making with his faith. Although not specifically addressed in the Qur’an, there is a debate within Islam as to whether music should be considered haram – forbidden by Islamic law – or not. Yusuf’s conversion to Islam coincided with his withdrawal from the music industry and his move away from music making so that he could focus upon his spiritual journey, family and his involvement in educational and charitable causes. However, he also erred on the side of caution when he discovered that elements within the religion did not approve of music. “While I still Carry a Guitar” is largely aimed at Yusuf’s Muslim audience and is an intimate and thorough explanation of his views on the place of music within his life as a Muslim. It gives insights into Yusuf’s thinking and processes and is a wonderful resource for fans, be they Muslim or other. There are plans to translate the book into many languages and I can reveal that Spanish speaking fans can get their hopes up for 2018!
April also saw an unexpected honour when it was revealed that “Wild World” was BBC Radio 2’s Most Played Folk Song. In a charming interview with Simon Mayo Yusuf expressed his surprise and pride at the accolade, joking that “it’s taken this long for me to be recognised as a Folk singer”. In an interesting exchange Yusuf pondered the Folk quality of his music, “the stories, like in the Folk tradition, are real stories”. From the interview, it is clear that Yusuf has a wonderful recollection of his early career and that he is also able to reflect upon the appeal of his music. He talked of being able to hear the plectrum strike the guitar strings on the recording and the “silky, almost percussive” character that it gives the track. Funnily enough, however, “Wild World” didn’t stick out from the rest at the time “It was, like, one of the songs, y’know, on the album”.
It was a huge treat for fans young and old to hear “Father and Son” in the 2017 blockbuster movie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The film’s star, Chris Pratt, waxed lyrical about the soundtrack explaining that the music adds a huge emotional dimension to the film and often takes center stage. When pressed on his favourite song in the movie he singled out “Father And Son” explaining “that’s the one that moves me the most… got me right in the heart”.
On July 2nd Yusuf made a surprise appearance at the Eid in the Square Festival in London. Hosted by Mayor Sadiq Khan, the festival was a wonderful celebration of the cultural contribution that Islam has made to the UK as well as a wonderful party to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Yusuf spoke of the benefits of multiculturalism and praised London’s inclusiveness by quoting Benjamin Disraeli, “London is a roost for every bird”.
During his speech, Yusuf also spoke about the horrors of the Grenfell Tower inferno that saw a London high-rise block of flats rapidly engulfed in flames due to poor building materials and non-adherence to building regulations. At the time, the council were incredibly slow to react and support those affected by the disaster and the vast majority of the relief effort came from local residents. Yusuf praised the community spirit of those who selflessly helped their neighbours “When something like the disaster of the Grenfell fire happens it is something which hurts all of us. Charity, unity and widespread compassion is the outcome. It has brought out that amazing characteristic of British temperament and humanity.”
Yusuf founded the Islamia Primary School in north London in 1983. He then went on to found two secondary schools: the Islamia Girls School in 1989 and the Brondesbury College in 1996. He and the family have been actively involved in the schools since their inceptions and in 2017 the Islamia Girls School not only achieved the best GCSE results in west London but was also awarded “Outstanding” status by Ofsted, the UK’s educational standards regulatory body. Yusuf takes great interest in the running of all of the schools and supports them wholeheartedly in their aspirations to achieve academic excellence and, above all, to nurture well rounded confident young people who will make a positive contribution to society.
As has become sadly all too common, we lost some wonderful artists in 2017. Fats Domino and Chuck Berry were huge influences on Yusuf in his formative years and on social media he spoke movingly about both titans of Rock’n’Roll. Yusuf also gave a moving tribute to the great Tom Petty who also sadly passed in 2017. However, perhaps the most heart-wrenching loss of the year was the untimely death of Chris Cornell. Yusuf was a huge influence on Cornell and through mutual admiration the two men had formed a rewarding friendship, even sharing the stage together at the Pantages Theatre in La in 2016.
The Laughing Apple was released on the 15th September and immediately drew praise from critics and fans alike. The album saw Yusuf reunited with both Alun Davies on guitar and producer Paul Samwell-Smith. It also saw a return to the stripped-down production and arrangement of the Tillerman/Teaser era albums. The artwork for the album, drawn by Yusuf, is entirely in keeping with those early 70s albums, albeit with a contemporary edge. The tracks on the record are a mixture of songs written early in Yusuf’s career such as “Mary and the Little Lamb” and “Northern Wind”, that have been revived and re-recorded, combined with new offerings like the infectious “See What Love Did To Me”. The Guardian newspaper stated that “there’s a disarming warmth and thoughtfulness, making for a pleasantly surprising late-career highlight” and The Daily Mail made it their album of the week, “With its gentle lullabies, skipping parables, stern warnings and quiet joy, The Laughing Apple feels like the real deal. A short, sweet return for the most effectual top Cat.”
A few days prior to the release of the album Yusuf held a launch party at the Joseph Fine Art Gallery on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue. The venue used to be Yusuf’s family’s cafe/restaurant and was where he grew up in the heart of the West End. Upstairs the small number of privileged guests were able to view Yusuf’s artwork for the album while sipping on stunning non-alcoholic cocktails. The basement was transformed into a tiny performance space where, after a light-hearted and informative chat with Radio 1’s Cerys Matthews, Yusuf performed three numbers with the accompaniment of his faithful blonde Gibson J-200 and multi-instrumentalist Kwame Yeboah. The audience were thrilled to be experiencing such an intimate show and many commented that it must be the closest thing to seeing Yusuf back in the early 70s. Yusuf, too, relished the intimacy of the event. He revealed that it felt incredibly natural to be performing with such a minimal set-up and was inspired to do similar events.
Sadly, 2017 saw yet another humanitarian disaster with millions of Rohingya Muslims having to flee their homes to escape destruction and persecution by the Myanmar government. The predominantly Buddhist regime does not recognise the Rohingya Muslims as citizens and reports of the atrocities being enacted upon them have been described by the UN as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”. Yusuf has used his platform to speak out on this issue and has teamed up with the Penny Appeal charity to provide crucial aid and support.
In November Yusuf and his Roadsters embarked upon a tour of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand that would run for almost two full months. The A Cat’s Attic: Peace Train 50th Anniversary Tour, like The Laughing Apple album, received incredible reviews from critics and wonderful support from the fans. The shows were a sellout and the love that flowed between Yusuf and his adoring fans was palpable.
It was the first time in his wide and varied career that Yusuf had toured South Africa and neither fans nor performer made secret their excitement. Yusuf has a profound relationship with the country. It was where he returned to live musical performance after an absence of some 27 years. With the encouragement of Peter Gabriel, he performed at the Nelson Mandela 46664 Concert in 2003. From the very first show in Johannesburg, the crowds were rendered delirious by a set-list that could easily make up a greatest hits album. However, almost every performance also contained a special gem such as a solo piano performance of “Tea For The Tillerman” or tender rendition of “Fill My Eyes”. Many of the songs from Yusuf’s early career such as “Matthew & Son”, “I Love My Dog” and “Bad Night” had been given updated arrangements and became staples of the tour. Most of these early songs have rarely been performed, let alone been the backbone of a tour set-list, as Yusuf didn’t perform them during the 1970s and has only occasionally played them since his return to the industry. Whatever the reason, the reception of these early songs rivaled the love that was shown for the more usual suspects.
As well as visiting some wonderfully beautiful locations, the tour actually included a number of outdoor venues such as the Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens in Cape Town. Being in the awesome presence of such stunning scenery only added to the joy and feelings of adventure that the entire touring party were experiencing. To be embraced by such abundant natural beauty was a source of tremendous inspiration for the whole team.
By the final few shows it was clear that Yusuf had had a wonderful time and had been energised by the reception that he’d received from the fans. He’d also heard that The Laughing Apple has been nominated for a GRAMMY in the Best Folk Album category which added a nice gloss to the feeling of momentum that had been built up by a run of exceptional shows.
Throughout the A Cat’s Attic: Peace Train Tour Yusuf told his audiences that he was performing again to build bridges and promote unity. In a world that is experiencing such uncertainty and volatility, it truly feels that there’s a need for the kindness, compassion, and oneness that is conveyed by Yusuf’s music. At the end of 2017, Yusuf’s message of peace seems more relevant than ever and the tremendously positive events of this year seem to have positioned him even more effectively to act as a force for good.
I wish you all peace and prosperity in 2018.
– Hallam Kite