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Cat Stevens retuns to stage

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Los Angeles (Reuters): The Peace Train is leaving the station again, after almost 30 years in storage. Yusuf Islam, the British folk singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, has released his first mainstream album since he ditched the rock-star life in the late 1970s, when he became a Muslim. The man behind such tunes as ''Wild World,'' ''Moonshadow,'' and the pacifist anthem ''Peace Train'' said in a recent interview that he had such a good time making his new album, ''An Other Cup,'' that he looks forward to returning to the studio, if not to the concert trail.

''I've been a Muslim now as long as I was a non-Muslim, 29 years,'' he told Reuters. ''So there's a kind of a meeting point, perhaps, here where I'm now able to balance all my lifelong experience and sing in harmony again.'' The 58-year-old father of five has not exactly been idle in the intervening years. He has focused on running Muslim schools and a charity called Small Kindness, with an occasional break to make religious albums. But he never quite turned his back on his previous life, thanks to hefty royalty income from album sales and cover versions of his songs, and frequent requests to license his tunes for movies and TV shows.

His good works earned him an honorary doctorate from the University of Gloucestershire in Britain last year. But a knighthood from Britain or Bono-like deification eludes him and he been viewed with suspicion because of his religious conversion. In 2004, the United States denied him entry into the country because his name was on a no-fly list. Albums are a perfect platform for getting things off one's chest, and Islam rises to the occasion in witty style with a version of the self-explanatory ''Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood,'' an oft-covered tune popularized by one of his favorite singers, Nina Simone.

''I had my moment of expressing my frustration,'' he said with a laugh. ''In a way it's not my song so I can't be blamed for it! So that's another reason I chose that song!'' But otherwise the album is not as belligerent and defensive as one might expect from someone who has been in the firing line for so long. At the end of the day, he's still a peace-loving folkie, ''trying to make a better place for everybody,'' he said. Indeed, the album title and artwork depicting a coffee cup holding the ocean are symbolic of ''something that we can all share, not something that we need to fight about, and that's a very important message.''

He says he has cleared up things with the United States, and hopes to come back next month to promote the album. When the authorities diverted his inbound flight in 2004, took him and his daughter off the plane and sent them back home he was on his way to the country music capital of Nashville for a recording session. In the end, he recorded the album primarily in London, with help from Los Angeles-based producer Rick Nowels, who has worked with Dido and Madonna. Guests include Senegalese vocalist Youssou N'Dour, who contributes to ''The Beloved,'' one of just a handful of overtly religious tracks.

The catchiest song is the last one he recorded, ''I Think I See the Light,'' a freewheeling version of a track that first appeared on his 1970 album ''Mona Bone Jakon.'' Never much of a critics' favorite, he has been earning some respectable notices for ''An Other Cup.'' Returning to the studio is one thing. Touring is another. He did the arenas during the 1970s, but says his intimate songs get lost in such settings. He will, however, be part of the international lineup playing the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Oslo on Dec. 11.

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