R eligion and Rock/Pop Music make strange bedfellows and yet prominent Rock artistes have, time and again, been deeply moved by the power of the Lord. Some of them deeply enough to even give up music while others have dedicated their lives to spread the word and introduce their fans to the miracles in their lives through Gospel music. One of my childhood heroes, Cliff Richard, was one such musician who, in the later stages of his career, dedicated himself to Jesus. Thankfully, because of this, I got a chance to hear him live in Bombay when he came here in the eighties as part of his church activities. Fortunately, this did not stop him from singing all his hits and it was great to see him accompanying himself on guitar and creating beautiful music.
Another great artiste of the seventies was similarly moved by this power. Unfortunately for his fans, this had an opposite effect on his music career. His new beliefs prohibited the use of music and he had to cut short his vocation to follow the dictates of his heart and mind. This is the story of Cat Stevens, the superstar of the seventies, who is the singer and writer of such powerful songs as "Wild World," "Peace Train," "Father And Son," "Morning Has Broken," etc.
Cat Stevens formerly Steven Georgiou was the son of a Greek restaurant owner father and Swedish mother. He was born in the heart of London's West End and received a strict Christian upbringing in a Catholic school. He grew up fully immersed in Greek folk music styles, and began playing folk music and writing his own music while at London's Hammersmith College in the late sixties. The young Cat Stevens was swept into the world of the bustling music business and was an instant success. Unfortunately, the fast life of a Pop star resulted in a medical emergency and Cat was confined to bed with a bad case of Tuberculosis for almost a year.
It was here that he developed an interest in things eastern and transcendental. He began meditating and turned towards Peace and 'Flower Power'. He started looking for answers about the meaning of existence and where it was leading. For nearly two years, Cat was sidelined from the music business and he had evolved into a totally different person. A lot of his new songs were now more reflective and personalized. So when it was time for him to re-enter the music business, it was with this new insight and a totally different sound. Stripped of all the glossy pop production, Cat Stevens re-emerged with a mostly acoustic, folksy, simple sound and there was no looking back! America welcomed him with open arms and he was soon to see success, the way he had never seen before.
What followed was the golden period of Cat Steven's music career. Albums like "Tea For The Tillerman", which included his first, hit "Wild World," "Teaser And The Firecat", with "Peace Train," followed by Stevens's first and only No. 1 album, "Catch Bull At Four". With every new album, Cat was exploring newer sounds and ideas but with every passing day he was finding himself drawn more and more to Eastern mysticism. He was already donating much of his income to charities such as UNESCO. By 1977, Cat Stevens had fully embraced Islam and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. The hits had disappeared by now but that was the last of Cat's worries as he had already given away all his material possessions. By 1983, he had founded the Islamia Primary School in Kilburn, London and given up music altogether.
Cat explains his strong religious inclinations as a result of a near death experience he had when he was nearly swept off Malibu Beach waters by strong currents. He attributes his rescue to his prayer to God and thereby the miraculous appearance of a wave, which pushed him towards land. Soon after his incident, he was gifted the Quran by his elder brother who knew his interest in matters of religion. It took Stevens more than a year to read the Quran and he was deeply impressed with the insights it contained. Now there was no choice before him but to become a Muslim. It was indeed shocking to his family, friends and fans to find this Catholic boy become an ardent follower of a religion which they knew very little about.
Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, was now totally lost to the world of music. He had alienated his fans that were left bewildered with the unexpected turn of events. Things definitely did not improve when Stevens told the media in 1989 that controversial writer Salmon Rushdie should be slain for his writing of "The Satanic Verses". American radio stations were infuriated and an airplay boycott was called of Stevens' music. Yet Stevens was unmoved and continued with his work for the Islamic faith
I have been fortunate to hear his lectures and they truly epitomize his absolute and unconditional devotion to his faith. Today Yusuf Islam is a much-respected man in the Muslim world. He has since commenced recording with minimal use of music instruments as permitted by his faith and his albums are again very popular with his Muslim brethren. As for the West, it surprisingly still does not seem to get enough of Cat Stevens, the seventies singer/song writer extraordinaire! Such was the power of his music that his albums from the seventies are still available in record stores all over the world and should continue to command full prices for years to come.