Cat Stevens’s ‘Peace Train’ stops in Jerusalem

Eliyahu Sidikman pays tribute to the icon at the capital’s Arts Festival.

Cat Stevens’s ‘Peace Train’ stops in Jerusalem (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cat Stevens’s ‘Peace Train’ stops in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Eliyahu Sidikman felt like he was being followed by a moonshadow. The veteran Jerusalem-based guitarist/singer long ago established his musical credentials with his loving tributes to his groups Long Time Gone and Crystal Ship, devoted to the the classic music of Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Doors, respectively. But accumulated burnout from five years of effort, combined with a long illness, prompted Sidikman to place both projects on hiatus last year.
“Nobody knows how much work goes into producing groups like those – it’s constant involvement, and you don’t get much cooperation from anyone, including the band members,” said Sidikman last week. “When I got ill, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m retiring from all this.’ I had to go through an unpleasant surgical procedure, and I sat at home on pain killers for a couple of months.”
As he recuperated, Sidikman recalled that another artist from his past had also dropped out of making music while recovering from a long illness – British singer/songwriter Cat Stevens.
“It was at the height of his popularity as a pop crooner in an Englebert Humperdinck fashion – and after a year in the hospital, he came out with these amazing spiritual songs,” said Sidikman. “I realized that there was a lot of his stuff I had never heard from that period, and I went out and bought his first post-illness record, Mona Bona Jakon , and thought, ‘Wow, this is great!’”
The moonshadow lifted from Sidikman’s shoulders and before he knew it, he had left his “retirement” behind and was energized with devising his new project – Lijah and the Firecats, a musical tribute to Stevens.
Following an auspicious debut last month at Café Avram in Jerusalem, the show is being featured in the 12th Jerusalem Arts Festival, taking place March 11-19. Peace Train – The Best of Cat Stevens will be staged on the closing night at the Gerard Behar Center.
“I spoke to Moseh DeGratzia at the music department of the municipality and he said, ‘Great, you’ll perform at the Arts Festival.’ I didn’t even have a band yet, just the idea,” said Sidikman. “It’s not only the first rock act to be featured in the festival, but it shows that DeGratzia has expanded its scope in a way that formally recognizes the Anglo contribution to the Jerusalem cultural scene.”
In addition to Sidikman’s expansive core group of a five-piece band and The Firecats – two Ethiopian background singers – the festival performance will feature youth choirs from Ahmad Sameh Al-Khalidi’s Preparatory School for Boys in Abu Tor, the Malkat Shva Ethiopian Cultural Center and the Dror religious school in the capital joining forces on a version of Stevens’s signature tune “Peace Train.” The coexistence nature of the song has Sidikman thinking big, hoping to follow up the festival show with a performance with Palestinian musicians in east Jerusalem that will ultimately result in an invitation to Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam, to come to Israel for a gala performance.
“I think that if we’re going to do a Cat Stevens show with a unique local interpretation using Arab and Jewish musicians, there’s no way he’s not going to find out about it. And if it’s good, we’ll say, ‘Come do a show with us.’ But first and foremost, it has to be good, and then we can talk about taking it further,” he says.
Sidikman said he was fully aware that since Stevens gave up music in 1977 after five years on top of the charts and converted to Islam, he’s been accused of funding organizations that funnel their money to Palestinian terror organizations. But he added that the show is celebrating the music of Cat Stevens, not Yusuf Islam.
“These songs were all written and recorded before his conversion to Islam,” he said. “And since then, the man has proven by his actions and public statements that he condemns terror. He created a fund for the victims of 9/11 and he pleaded with the captors of [slain journalist] Daniel Pearl to release him. The man has spent 30 years funding charities and educational programs. He says his concerns are humanitarian, and I think we can take him at his word. But ultimately, the music is from another period of his life, and I don’t find it necessary to apologize for him. The music has taken on a life of its own.”
The uplifting show indeed focuses on music and covers an array of Stevens’s career, including hits like “Wild World” and lesser-known album cuts like “On the Road To Find Out.” For Sidikman, the attraction isn’t only the timeless lyrics about spiritual yearning and peace but also the music and arrangements.
“As an acoustic guitarist, there’s a limited range of music that I can perform within the context of a band,” said Sidikman. “In Long Time Gone there was the acoustic show, where the guitar was eclipsed by the vocal harmonies, and the electric show, where it was eclipsed by the lead guitar. Cat Stevens is the acoustic guitarist’s dream – interesting arrangements and dynamics that allow the guitar work to shine, and no electric guitars to compete against. The show forced me to learn several new techniques, including Cat’s characteristic rapid-fire strumming, and it represents the greatest challenge I’ve had yet as a musician.”
Advance tickets can be purchased at Bimot (02) 623-7000, *6226,; at Gerard Behar and on the Jerusalem Arts Festival website (http://www.arts-
Special discount tickets for groups over 20 can be arranged. Call 054-549-0690.