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Baker's Dozen

Turning Points: Yusuf/Cat Stevens' 13 Favourite Albums
Yousif Nur , October 11th, 2017 10:42

From Beethoven to The Beach Boys via King Kong: The Musical, these are the 13 pieces of music that shaped Yusuf/Cat Stevens as an artist

Photo by Danny Clinch

In my early teens, my uber-religious dad brought home an audio CD of Yusuf Islam narrating the life of the Prophet Mohammed. Little did I know that later on that Yusuf had a previous alias as a singer-songwriter named Cat Stevens.

I learned that in 1977, Cat Stevens converted to Islam, which subsequently changed his musical listening habits, reflected in the time scope of his Baker's Dozen. “I was very selective over what records I bought in terms of what I allowed to enter my audio domain,” he remembers. “So I would be listening generally on the airwaves or other people’s collections. When it came to embracing Islam, Elvis had just died, which probably symbolically meant it was the death of rock ‘n’ roll! I was more interested in studying my faith and the records I was interested in at that time were Quran cassettes and that took all my listening time up. I used to play my own music from the very beginning. I hardly sang anybody else’s songs. I’d be focused on my music and I more or less stopped writing. I didn’t have the inspiration anymore. Things changed.”

What changed, exactly? “That’s a big question,” Yusuf answers. “But essentially the first song I wrote when my daughter was born was called 'A For Allah'. I wanted my child to grow up learning that A is not only for apples. And then the big change happened when the Bosnian war happened. When I visited Bosnia, I found that there was an overwhelming connection between the struggle there and music. There was still singing, even though they were being bombed out of existence. It gave them spirit, and I realised that that was a turning point in my life.

“I was listening to very conservative voices in Islam about being careful with music, frivolity and time wasting. But this was not time wasting, this was survival! It opened up a whole new understanding for me about the role of music in Islamic civilisation. Then I discovered later that the guitar was probably introduced to Europe via the lute, which came from the Arabic Oud. The Oud came from Baghdad to Andalucía and from there it entered Europe. In fact, the word troubadour means 'to entertain' in Arabic. So when you see all these pictures of medieval England with lute players, they were actually getting these from Islamic civilisation.

“But with regards to the decision to pick up the guitar again, my son one day brought one home and that was the beginning of my coming together with music again. Music for me evokes so many emotions but I would hear how artists would stretch the boundaries, particularly in the seventies. Today, there’s so much repetition, cut and paste and sample sounds that it just makes you appreciate the days of analogue and how inspired many of those groups and artists were, including me of course.”

Not only is Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam’s presence in music colossal, it also ventured into tech: “I was told by one of the originators of the mp3 who was working with Apple at the time, that the first mp3 experiment was with the song 'Father And Son'. And if you look at Steve Jobs' top ten songs on his iPhone, three of my songs were on it. Without being too boastful, I’m sure I would feature on many other people’s all-time lists too!

“With my new albums, some of the songs date back to 1967 and I wanted to record them the way I wanted to hear them.”

Yusuf/Cat Stevens' new album The Laughing Apple is out now.

To begin reading his Baker's Dozen, click the image below