After attending a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1989, 9-year-old Sami Yusuf was handed something that was destined to change his life.
It was an exquisite Azeri tar – a traditional long-necked lute. It came from Azerbaijan, the homeland of his father, a poet and musician. Yusuf practised tirelessly on the instrument, and on the tombak (a goblet drum).
“I was actually about 5 years old when I composed my first piece,” says the 36-year-old, and hums the melancholy melody for me.
“I was blessed to be born into a home filled with music and poetry, surrounded by visits from artists and intellectuals from around the world.”
Yusuf, an Iranian-born British national – described by Time magazine as “Islam’s biggest rock star” – has sold more than 30 million albums of his devotional music, known as nasheed.
A UN global ambassador against hunger, he was recently awarded the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Award for World Peace. He has more than eight million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and when he announced an autograph session for his latest album, Barakah (blessing), at Virgin Megastores in Mall of the Emirates in Dubai last week, hundreds of excited fans showed up – a multigenerational, multicultural gathering that included Arabs, Africans, South East Asians and Australians.
Among them was 26-year-old Turkish doctor Leyla Yilmaz, whose husband flew her in from Switzerland for her birthday without telling her about the surprise chance to meet Yusuf.
“I listen to Sami Yusuf’s music whenever I am doing surgery,” she says. “This was the best birthday gift. I love his music – it is unique, spiritual, and so peaceful. I feel closer to God when I listen to it.”