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Yusuf's new album is the Cat's pyjamas after break


Yusuf: 'Music, the blues particularly, was a means of escape'

Yusuf: 'Music, the blues particularly, was a means of escape'

Yusuf: 'Music, the blues particularly, was a means of escape'

Tell 'em, he's back. Yusuf - the singer-songwriter formerly known as Yusuf Islam and before that the singer-songwriter formerly known as Cat Stevens - is, after a long-ish absence, once more in our midst.

And quite illustriously, too, with his first studio album in five years, Tell 'Em I'm Gone. It's the cat's pyjamas too. The icon of the hippy generation in the Sixties who turned his back on music to become a man of God, has gone rhythm and blues.

Yusuf describes the raison d'etre behind this new record, which has seen him return to his Sixties roots, thus: "Hidden in the background behind my renowned troubadour persona lurked an R&B alter-self waiting to be let free. What's powerful and profound, to me, is the overall message which emerged, lyrically. It suddenly stared me in the face: the innate struggle for freedom.

"Isn't that what most human beings dream of? Music and the blues particularly was a means of escape for many chained to the destiny of the rich and powerful."

There is plenty of rebooted boots and general grit-in-the-mix rootsiness here courtesy of the 66-year-old Londoner (born Steven Demetre Georgiou) who, as he sings on Editing Floor Blues, "I was born in the West End in the summer time of 48."

With spine-tingling cover versions of Edgar Winter's Dying To Live, Procol Harum's The Devil Came From Kansas and Jimmy Reed's Big Boss Man, Tell 'Em I'm Gone is co-produced by none other than Rick Rubin, the hirsute guru who re-invented, among others, the career of latter period Johnny Cash on his American Recordings albums.

As well as some glorious covers and some equally lovely originals , the guest musicians popping by to lend some authenticity are just as glorious: Richard Thompson, Tinariwen, Charlie Musselwhite and Will Oldham.

The latter, who sings backing vocals on the aforementioned 1969 Procol Harum track The Devil Came From Kansas, interviewed Yusuf for American magazine Spin and asked him what the song was about.

"You know what?" Yusuf replied. "I'm frightened to ask [Procol Harum's] Keith Reid, just in case it really disappoints me.

"But to me, I had a pretty bad trip in Kansas once, and I wrote a song about it called 18th Avenue (Kansas City Nightmare). There is something to do with a devilish night that I had out there.

"So that song, 18th Avenue, really does document very clearly what happened. I actually did run to the airport after coming off this terrible trip, and finally making it. And that was Gate 22 that I had to reach."

In November, 2009, I had an anything-but-terrible trip with Yusuf and his wife Fawzia Ali in a giant complex in Hertfordshire - where he was rehearsing ahead of a world tour and a show in Dublin. It was quite an entertaining afternoon, on many levels, chief among them comedic.

At one point, Fawzia Ali asked me: "What's the best time to see Ireland?"

In two years, when the recession ends, I joke. Yusuf practically fell on the floor with laughter.

"I went there in my early days," he said. "I did open the Islamic Centre in Dublin in the Eighties or early Nineties as one of the chief guests."

I asked Yusuf and Fawzia Ali how they envisaged Ireland. "I think of family, incredible passion, the colour green and lovely, beautiful music".

"Oh, we love Irish music," Fawzia Ali said.

When I asked him about his favourite singers, Yusuf (responsible for such songs as Peace Train and The First Cut is the Deepest) sang some Tom Waits. When he stopped I asked about his favourite films; he turned to Fawzia Ali and it got a bit like something from a Marx Brothers film.

Him: "What are the movies I watch again and again?"

Her: "The one with the guy who's on the desert island? Tom Hanks?"

Him: "No, no, that's not it! My wife is slipping," he laughed.

Me (incredulously): "Er . . . Castaway?"

"No, I like that too, but I'm talking about the sea movie with Russell Crowe."

Me (even more incredulously): "Do you mean Master and Commander?"

Him: "Yes, that's it!"

Me: "Isn't it a bit macho?"

Him: "Yes, I suppose, but I love the music and the violins! It's incredible."

Oh, how we chortled in Hertfordshire.

Sunday Independent