Sami Yusuf, reluctant rock star

Posted on May 3rd, 2012

HE HAS sold well over nine million albums so far and Sami Yusuf’s global appeal is so impressive that Time magazine once referred to him as “Islam’s biggest rock star”.

This British singer-songwriter, who is of Azerbaijan descent, was born in Teheran before moving to London with his family at the age of three.

Sami started composing simple melodies as a young boy. And as he got older, he learnt to play various musical instruments such as the santoor, piano, violin, oud, setar, tar, and daf under the guidance of traditional teachers, as well as professional musicians.

Sami self-produced and released his debut album Al-Mu’allim (2003) at the age of 23, which sold over two million copies. His second album, My Ummah (2005), consolidated his position as a star. His song, Supplication, was used as the soundtrack for the Marc Forster movie, The Kite Runner (2007).

There was a five-year gap between My Ummah and his third album because Sami got into a dispute with his former record label for releasing his songs without his consent. He subsequently signed on to ETM International.

In 2010, Sami released his third album, Wherever You Are, and coined the word, ‘Spritique’, to explain his musical genre, which is a combination of spiritual music and eastern musical influences.

Sami will be performing a concert at Stadium Malawati, Shah Alam, on July 14 featuring songs from his soon-to-be launched fourth album, Salaam, as well as a duet with Datuk Siti Nurhaliza who recently recorded a song with the artiste.

During a press conference to announce the concert, Sami said he had wanted to come to Malaysia for a long time.

“God willing, we will have an exciting show. We have customised 18 songs for you and there will be a lot of surprises. I’m a perfectionist. I would rather do nothing than give you something mediocre.”

Sami explained that when he made his first album Al-Mu’allim, he never thought he would sell so many CDs. He recorded the album because he wanted to connect with his spiritual side.

Nonetheless, the album became a big hit and Sami became on overnight star that allowed him to meet heads of states and develop a fan following that is now two billion strong.

A concert in Turkey after the release of his second album was attended by a crowd of 250,000. This massive turnout earned him the “Islam’s biggest rock star” tag.

“Al-Mu’allim created a new wave of music known as Islamic pop. It is something I’m not comfortable with. Whether it’s called Islamic pop or Islamic rock, it is just an oxymoron. I think music should be music. Just keep it honest and sincere.”

Sami has recorded songs in English, Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Azeri and Malay. “I’m ashamed to say that I’m not proficient in my mother tongue which is Azeri. I speak, dream and even have nightmares in English. Arabic is a language I picked up when I was studying in Egypt and I love that language.”

He said he also understands a bit of Hindi, Parsi, Urdi and Turkish.

His duet with Siti will be in English and Malay. Sami holds Siti in high regard and also sings praises of Raihan, the very first nasyid group that he has heard of.

“I really like Raihan. I think the group really revolutionise music. When I made My Ummah, the only nasyid I heard and liked was Raihan. I think Malaysians should be proud and the Muslim world should be proud [of the group].”

Sami has started his own record label, Andante, which is a platform for youth. “Many young artistes who want to make music they believe in today are forced to compromise for the sake of commercialism. The aim of Andante is to support these artistes and allow them to be true to their music.”

Sami added that the album label is about promoting values, the artistes and their music regardless of the type of songs they sing. “It is not an investment or business. It is something I am passionate about and it is something I want to give back to society.”

Sami admitted he can’t relate to contemporary music. Instead, he is drawn to eastern classical and traditional music.

“I listen to classical music. I know it is not a classy or fashionable thing to say. I don’t draw inspiration from western style of music. For me, pop music is a decadent type of music. It is not only void of originality but also of substance.”

Among the classical musicians he loves are Bach and Mozart whom he describes as spiritual people. And that is why their music shines to this day, Sami said, adding that he hopes his music, too, will follow suit.

For tickets to Konsert Salaam Sami Yusuf, go to tomorrow.