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Yusuf, formerly Cat Stevens, brings good vibes

  • Story Highlights
  • Yusuf, formerly Cat Stevens, has new album: "Roadsinger"
  • After big success in '70s, he converted to Islam, shut down career for a time
  • "I'm very much an optimist," Yusuf says
By Denise Quan
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- It was the hottest ticket in town. Colin Farrell was there. So were Michelle Branch, Josh Groban and Chris Isaak -- the latter accompanied by his manager's dog, Rodney.

Yusuf, formerly known as Cat Stevens, believes he can help bridge gaps between cultures.

Yusuf, formerly known as Cat Stevens, believes he can help bridge gaps between cultures.

No, we're not talking about a Britney Spears or U2 concert. We're talking about a star-studded, invitation-only club show by Yusuf -- the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens.

It was the legendary folk singer's first L.A. show in 33 years, and the audience gave him a heartfelt "welcome back."

He played for just over an hour: half a dozen songs from his new album, "Roadsinger," plus a few gems from the '60s and '70s. It was "Peace Train" that elicited a singalong, with the entire room participating in the song's signature hand claps.

Branch, who sings backup on Yusuf's new album, admitted to getting teary-eyed. "You don't understand," she said. "I learned how to play guitar with the Cat Stevens songbook!" Video Watch Yusuf talk about his songbook -- and his life »

The whole evening seemed awash in good vibes. Concertgoers didn't even mind having a security guard electronically wand them on the way in. It was perhaps an extra security measure given some of the lingering controversy surrounding the headliner's conversion to Islam at the height of his popularity in 1977, during which time he changed his name from Cat Stevens to Yusuf Islam.

In 2004, he was famously denied entry into the United States after his name appeared on a no-fly list. He maintained that it was a case of mistaken identity with another man named Yousuf Islam.

However, there was no mistaking the artist on stage at the El Rey Theater last week. At 60, he may look more like a hip college professor than the dark-haired, sensitive sex symbol he was in the '70s, but the message and the music remained the same.

The following is an edited version of his interview with CNN.

CNN: For a lot of people, it's not only the music but what the music represents. Hearing the old Cat Stevens songs makes people feel warm and fuzzy, a throwback to a simpler time.

Yusuf: That's true, and that's why we gave a sprinkling of those songs. When I want to see Paul McCartney, I'd expect to hear "Eleanor Rigby" -- something from the past -- because there's something about that that we connect with, and a person becomes part of our life. And I am a part of a lot of people's lives, and my words have resounded in a lot of people's philosophies and the way they look at things, and that's great. Somehow, that's one of the reasons I took life and songwriting very seriously.

CNN: But you gave it up for a while.

Yusuf: At a certain point I said, "I've got more living to do," and I stopped making music, and I started living.

CNN: Many people don't think they start living until they HAVE the fame and fortune. But you didn't start living until you gave it up.

Yusuf: It's true. I was very normal -- in some sense, a very shy person. I had to become a persona. I had to kind of put it on a little bit, and therefore I retreated a little bit at a certain point in my career because I thought, "I can't do this."

So I just became withdrawn, and then people say, "Well, the guy's a bit of a recluse, you know." The fact was, I was just a little bit scared of being out there!

And I wanted to be sincere, as well. It wasn't easy to be sincere in the music business.

CNN: I think a lot of people were surprised when you converted to Islam in the '70s. People didn't understand it. Even today, I think there are those who still don't understand it.

Yusuf: It's true. I used to be prejudiced -- as prejudiced as anyone about Islam. ... And then I was given the opportunity of reading the actual source, the Quran itself, without anybody forcing me or looking over my shoulder and saying, "What do you think?" It was just me in my space.

And the more I read the Quran, the more I realized that it was like an incredible matrix of connection with Christianity and Judaism. I mean Jesus, Moses, the religion of Abraham in this book! And I said, "Wow, how come I didn't know this before?" It was kind of like a secret.

So that was kind of my discovery, and a lot of people, I don't think, have gone through that process because they've seen Islam as a headline -- and you never learn anything about a headline. Because headlines, you know -- people make things up, to be honest.

CNN: In 2004, you were put on a no-fly list and denied entry into the United States. How did you view that?

Yusuf: I felt chosen! I felt suddenly, I was given a halo. "This guy stands for peace, and they won't let him in." And so I turned it from a no-fly list to a no-song list, and I wrote a song about it ("Boots and Sand"), and I decided to take it lightly. It was really kind of a joke, in a way, because the person I am and the kind of things they were kind of insinuating by putting me on this list with other people who were very dangerous --

CNN: You mean you're not dangerous?

Yusuf: No! Touch me! (laughs) It was upsetting for a lot more people than myself. And you know, I'm here now (in the United States), so things are kind of working themselves out. But there's a new administration, a new president, and it's a great new day.

CNN: Obama seems to be reaching out to people of all faiths around the world.

Yusuf: I think a person like Obama has some kind of faith in his special role that he has to perform. And that role -- if not prophetic -- it's a divine role. It's helping humanity and people get together and live together and prosper. That's a big demand on one person, so it cannot happen with him alone. There's going to have to be a lot of changes around the world. But it is happening.

CNN: There are people who have said you've been associated with groups funneling money to Hamas.

Yusuf: Yup. Yeah. So the biggest thing in my life is ... why do I have to defend being charitable? Oh, because somehow, somewhere, somebody got a bit of that money, and he's on a list, and somebody else is on a list -- God almighty! That has nothing to do with me. I'm just trying to be charitable!

I think if everybody followed every penny that they ever gave, they would find some very interesting stories behind what has happened to their money. Possibly a lot of it would have gone to waste in administration, as well as other places. It's unfortunate that people have to associate someone because he's got a different faith -- or because he's a Muslim -- with something bad.

CNN: Do you believe that will get better?

Yusuf: Oh, yeah. I'm very much an optimist. And I believe in the hereafter, as well. And that's a big thing!


CNN: Do you believe that you have a role and that your role is to reach out and touch people through song?

Yusuf: Very much. I think I've been given a position and place in this world which is quite unique. The fact that I'm a Westerner by birth and I'm a Muslim at the same time -- and living in this time where there seems to be such a gravitational split in polarities -- there need to be bridges, and I think music is one of the best ways to bridge all those gaps.

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