Sting: an Englishman in Morocco

The 63-year-old admits to enjoying the loneliness and anonymity that comes with being solo in New York mostly because of the big, healthy beard he has been sporting for more than a year.

Sting performs at the Mawazine festival in Rabat, Morocco last week. Youssef Boudlal / Reuters
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His 1987 classic Englishman in New York may have spoken about the loneliness and anonymity that comes with being solo in the Big Apple, but Sting has been thoroughly enjoying the experience of late.

He explains that many New Yorkers had no idea the person who just walked past them was a rock icon; thanks to the big, healthy beard he has been sporting for more than a year.

“It is very liberating,” says the 63-year-old icon. “I decided to keep it because no one immediately recognises me when I stroll down the street.”

Other than going undercover, another reason for the facial hair was Sting's role in his Broadway musical The Last Ship from November last year to January. The move was an attempt to rescue the production from floundering ticket sales.

Always self deprecating, Sting admits that “it was the beard that did most of the acting”.

Although The Last Ship, which morphed from album to concert tour to Broadway show, was not a box-office success, it was nominated for two gongs at the Tony awards on Sunday night – Best Original Score (Sting) and Best Orchestrations (Rob Mathes). It also was a highly personal story for Sting.

"It is very personal to me and it was a story that I was compelled to tell," he says. "The Last Ship is about my hometown in the North of England which is a place known for ship-building. I am very proud of the Tony nomination and now the play will go to Scandinavia next year, and we are looking to take it around the world because every culture understands how important the building of ships is – including your part of the world. It has a universal message that we can all share." Speaking last week from the Mawazine Festival in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, Sting is continuing a solo tour that saw him headline the Dubai Jazz Festival back in ­February

Unlike some artists of his generation, Sting has regularly included Middle Eastern dates as part of his world tour over the past two decades.

As well as playing in the UAE on four occasions, Sting has also performed in Egypt (in front of the Sphinx, no less, back in 2001) in addition to Jordan Tunis and Lebanon.

Why does he keep coming back?

“Well, Arab culture is just very exciting,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for what it has given the world in terms of music, art and philosophy, so it is always a great honour to come and entertain that culture.”

Sting cemented himself as a much-loved figure in the region with the 1999 global hit Desert Rose, his Grammy Award-­winning collaboration with Algerian Raï artist Cheb Mami. The song not only exposed the world to the Arabic genre, but kick-started an international career for Mami.

Sting, who reached out to Mami after hearing him perform at a Paris gig, says the beauty of the partnership lay in the song’s power to overcome their ­language.

“I met with Cheb Mami and I told him: ‘Look, I have a song I would like you to perform on,’ but I didn’t tell him what it was about,” Sting recalls.

“Now, he didn’t speak English and my Arabic is non-existent, but he listened and wrote down some lyrics and came back two weeks later and said: ‘I have something for you.’ He then sang it and I loved it and I asked him: ‘What are you singing about?’ and he said: ‘I am singing about longing.” I said: ‘Well, that’s remarkable because that’s exactly what I am singing about in English.’”

Sting doesn't necessarily agree with Desert Rose's classification as World Music.

“I am always intrigued by that term, because it’s all world music to me,” he says.

“Whenever I travel my ears are open and I listen to the music of the place. I hear authentic folk music, pop and dance music and I am always open to influences. But you can never predict what will be useful and what will move you.”

That curiosity is central to Sting’s songwriting, a process he can’t readily describe.

“It is very difficult to talk, no less give advice, about songwriting,” he says. “Even though I have done it my entire life and done it very successfully, it is still something of a mystery to me.”

There is no mystery, however, to how the singer stays in shape, he says. “It is 50 per cent discipline and 50 per cent vanity, and that’s the truth.”