Dubbed "Islam's biggest rock star", part-time Sharjah resident Sami Yusuf spoke to The National this week about how his music can help everyone, not just Muslims, see beyond the superficial and how he hopes this time of hardship will lead to a "global awakening".
Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation's (Admaf) Ramadan series will close on a spiritual high as British singer and composer Sami Yusuf performs on Wednesday, May 13. He will be in the UAE, while his band will log on from across Turkey and the UK for what is bound to be a soul-enriching performance.
The pre-recorded concert, Journey of Solidarity, will be streamed on Admaf's Facebook page, and will feature the debut performance of his soaring track The 99 Names, a piece based on the Islamic principle that God has 99 divine attributes.
Yusuf reveals the track was produced with the help of Oscar-winning Indian composer AR Rahman and members of his family. The South Indian musician's daughters Khatija and Rahima Rahman and sisters Reihana and Israth Qadri provided backing vocals.
Running at more than eight minutes, the track is described by Yusuf as meditative and not aimed at a solely Muslim audience.
“Just as with Gregorian chants, Buddhist chants, and the other sacred chants that are appreciated by people outside their own traditions, I wanted the meditative quality of this work to appeal to people of all faiths and people of no faith,” he says.“I wanted it to be strong and melodic and to have a correlation between the meanings of the names and the melody. And as a soundscape, even without comprehending the language, I wanted it to be heard beyond a Muslim audience as a beautiful piece of meditation music. Most importantly, I poured my heart into making this composition somehow worthy of the names.”
The 99 Names of Allah is something many Muslims have a passing knowledge of, what do you hope they take from the song?
These names have been given to us so that, by contemplating them in our minds, which are limited, we can perceive something of the limitless. I wanted to share the sound of these names with my audience because they [the names] are so beautiful to the heart as well as to the ear.
As for truly realising the depths of their meaning, to fully immerse in even just one of these names has been the goal of sages and mystics for centuries. I’d consider my goal in this piece fulfilled if just a few listeners hear the subtlest hint of the vastness and beauty they contain.
Which of the 99 Names do you find particularly resonating during these times?
I would definitely say the names: Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim, which mean The Compassionate, The Merciful and Ar-Ra'uf, The Kind, and Al-Afu, The Forgiving. They resonate for me strongly at this time.
I feel the world is calling out for these qualities now.
We are living in trying times. In such a situation, what role does art have play?
For me, music – by that I mean the traditional music that inspires my compositions and performances almost exclusively now – is a way to connect to our truest selves.
At its best, it can remind us that there’s a reality beyond this ephemeral reality, and it can do that because there is an echo of the eternal at its heart. It’s getting to that recognition that I want to be part of through my craft.
I think that’s the opposite of escapism. I’d like my art to heighten the perceptions of my listeners as it immerses them, at least temporarily, in a world more real than the ordinary world of superficiality.
For many of us, this Ramadan has been unlike any other. How has the experience of the holy month, so far, been for you?
I was recording in the UAE when the shutdowns started. I haven’t left my studio for two months. My time has been spent composing and recording, and in that way it’s been a blessing.
I’ve found that the quietening of the outer world has been an aid to reflection and contemplation. But I am painfully aware of the sufferings that so many are undergoing, as well as the heroic work being done by the medical practitioners to keep us healthy and all those who are making the wheels of life turn for the rest of us.
When we emerge from this experience, what changes would you like to see in the world?
It’s my great hope that when we look back at 2020 it will be seen as the year of global awakening: a time of hardship that drew peoples together, a time that the negative aspects of tribalism were set aside and replaced by the unified dreams of a true global village.
A Sami Yusuf performance is renowned for its air of intimacy. Will it be a challenge to maintain that atmosphere in an online concert?
I don’t think it will be a problem. It’s in the nature of a live online performance to have an intimate feel.
Technically it will be very challenging, but I’m really looking forward to this event. Unlike some of the major performances I’ve given recently with large orchestras, there will be just six of us in various locations. It promises to be very exciting.
Finally, what is next for Sami Yusuf?
Although I don't ordinarily work during Ramadan, I find myself in an especially intensely creative period. I'm composing music for an event in Amsterdam called When Paths Meet, where I will conduct the choral ensemble Cappella Amsterdam, the Amsterdam Andalusian Orchestra, and my own group in a concert at the Holland Festival, Europe's oldest arts festival.
The event has been postponed due to Covid-19, but we expect to perform it later this year.
In addition to The 99 Names release, there are several other musical projects I'm currently involved in, including my Ecstasy album, which will explore the musical heritage of the Islamic world, and the album that I will be making from the ADMAF performance.
Sami Yusuf performs on Wednesday, May 13 at 9.30pm on the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation Facebook page.