When international sensation Sami Yusuf came to Virgin Megastore Dubai, we had a chance to catch up with him. Find out his inspirations and defining moments. Here’s what he had to say.
How did you know you wanted to pursue a career in music and how did you get started?
I really wasn’t good at anything other than music and that’s the truth. I wasn’t particularly good at academia. I wasn’t very good at school. My earliest exposure to music, other than hearing my dad play at home, was just going to primary school and tapping on the table doing beats. I wouldn’t even listen to the teacher. I knew then that this is my life; this is what I want to do. And, I knew that from the moment I can recollect consciousness.
What is your greatest inspiration when you compose music?
I have a compositional background, a producing background and an arranging background. But when I’m writing a song, absolutely without a shadow of a doubt, it’s the lyrics that drive inspiration for me. Music is like a jar, a cup or a salad bowl. The production and arrangement are the container. The food in it are the lyrics. What you are actually digesting are the lyrics. The melody, production and arrangement are all in service to the lyrics. It’s the lyrics that elevate you and get you to think.
If I ask you to sing me a song from the 60s and 70s, you can be sure you’re not going to hum a melody. You’ll sing the lyrics. Melodies are of course important. But at the heart of it, the lyrics provide the inspiration for me.
One of the reasons the music industry is in decline is because the A & R people (artists & repertoire) put production before everything. It’s so easy now to get your own set up. Anyone can do it. But when you send a demo, the A & R person listens and develops it. Nowadays, they don’t even listen to the lyrics and it comes ready made. What are we digesting?
You’ve been in the business for a while now. How would you say you’ve evolved over time?
When I was younger, one of my songs Supplication was hugely successful. It was a song I didn’t even want to put in the album. Paramount used it in Kite Runner. I remember thinking it was such a boring melody at the time. I was much younger. Despite what I considered to be a dull melody, it was the most successful. I now realise that it was because the words were very beautiful.
You do a lot of humanitarian work as well. How has that affected your musical career and vice versa?
I don’t do enough. I should be doing more. It’s a great honour and a great blessing. If you want to change things at the grassroots level, you really do need to also be part of these great programmes like the World Food Programme.
In terms of my musical career, it has definitely made me more grounded. To be honest, I remember when I became famous back in 2006, I did a concert in Holland. They had asked me to sing from backstage. I began to sing and 6000 girls started screaming. I found that so awkward. The whole world of fame just felt very superficial. But, the humanitarian work I’m doing feels real.
What would you say is your greatest musical moment to date?
My greatest musical moment to date would be 2014. That was a momentous year for me. It was the year that I got very personal on the metaphysical and spiritual side of things. It was the year I released the album The Centre. That was a very interesting project. And then, from that came Barakah. It was a great success both in the industry sense in terms of sales, but also the process of looking inwards. And, I never thought it would be. That path of rediscovery and of being connected to something greater was, if I can say so, my greatest musical moment in time so far.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
I have two strands. One strand focuses on tradition. In that we’ve got influence from the Arab world, from Syria, India and Pakistan. It’s a very purest approach. Keeping that alive making sure it endures in some small form and in my humble efforts is very important. It connects us to something greater.
The second strand is more accessible music. That’s something like my most recent album SAMi. The essence is the same. The poetry that’s used for the traditional stuff talks about transcendence. There’s an obsession today with meditation and mindfulness and the whole self help world. What we don’t realise is that most of what’s being taught is essentially watered down versions of traditional teachings. It’s ultimately about self discovery. It’s about being rooted and finding that sacred centre. In the geometric patterns we see in the Arab world, we always find that circle. That is the universal truth. And, it’s sacred. People of the past were connected to that centre, that circle. So, in essence the traditional music I make and the modern music are not that far off from one another. Essentially, they are both about the lyrics. It’s all about the words.