Joi to the World
Farook Shamsher, a pioneer of the Asian Underground movement, speaks about his upcoming fourth album
He has been called the Godfather of London’s Asian Underground, a trailblazer who paved the way the Asian Underground followed. Farook Shamsher of Joi has been making music and spreading “the Joi vibe” since the mid-Eighties, and neither age nor newfound fatherhood has slowed him down. Fresh off the heels of his recent album Without Zero, Shamsher is already back in the studio working on his fourth album.
For our interview, I asked Shamsher to pick a place he liked to hang out at. It should have been no surprise that we met at the Bluu Bar in London’s Hoxton Square. The Bluu Bar, formerly the Blue Note, and before that the Bass Clef, was a venue where Joi held regular club nights in the early Nineties. These were the events that became the nerve centre of the Asian Underground movement.
“We were the Warhols of the Asian scene. We just let ourselves go and partied and had lots of fun. It was an amazing time. There were probably quite a few parties just around this street corner,” says Shamsher.
Joi was founded by brothers Haroon and Farook Shamsher, and their parties were typically packed nights, attracting hippie types, Bangladeshi teenagers… “A friendly atmosphere and exciting, new music which combined beats, breaks, tablas, rap, swirling basslines, and Indian female vocal samples with very electronic and danceable music,” recalls DJ Ritu, a regular at Joi parties.
At that time “what we were doing was quite dynamic and ahead of its time. When it first came out people didn’t understand electronic music”¦ it was unheard of, and people didn’t really know what to make of it,” recalls Shamsher.
This was also the spot where Talvin Singh set up his own label and club, Anokha, which became the UK’s weekly Asian Underground event which took up residence at the Blue Note. “Monday nights in Hoxton became a world of trendy Asian media types and ravers, all getting down to the new Asian fusion sounds,” says DJ Ritu in the sleeve notes to her 2003 compilation album. This was the era that spawned the likes of Nitin Sawhney and the Asian Dub Foundation, and Joi was the band that helped kick-start it all.
“At that time nobody would even come to this area. This was very much a ”˜hide your money in your socks’ kind of place. We came here because there were no other venues we could play at,” says Shamsher.
Celebrity-spotting, too, became the norm, as BjÃ¶rk was a regular guest at Joi parties, and future Spice Girl Gerri Halliwell did a brief stint as a Joi dancer. After developing a following on the London club scene, Joi released their debut album, One and One is One in 1999 which took its name from a Rabindranath Tagore poem, symbolising the group’s message of love and unity. Success came quickly, and before they knew it they were headlining in renowned clubs like The Viper Room in Los Angeles at Johnny Depp’s invitation. Shamsher has previously said, “Of course there were girls. It’s not that hard when you’re up there on stage. I suppose when they watch you rock a party they think, well, if he can turn on 5,000 people, he’s got to be able to do a pretty good job on just one girl!”
But the whirlwind parties came to a halt as tragedy soon set in. In 1999, elder brother Haroon travelled to Bangladesh to gather field recordings for the next Joi record. Shortly after he returned to London, Haroon was rushed to the hospital with a heart attack. Before anyone knew what had happened, he was pronounced dead at the age of 34.
What followed was We Are Three, a moving and emotionally uplifting tribute album to his brother. It would be another seven years before Shamsher released Joi’s third album in 2007 titled, Without Zero.
Interestingly, Shamsher still refers to Joi in the collective and occasionally refers to his elder brother in the present tense. “Of course it’s difficult to make music without him,” he says, “because when you have two people to bounce ideas off of, it’s a beautiful experience. But I still feel he is there, that he left behind something that is part of both of us and of Joi.”
Even though Joi has firm roots in the fertile Asian fusion movement in London, Shamsher says now is the right time to take the fourth album into a different direction. “It will still be a Joi vibe, but I want it to be quite different from the past three albums. I think the time is now for me to step up.”
At 39, he has just become a father and this seems to have coincided with his decision to quit smoking. He admits he may not be as rebellious as in his early days but asserts that the passion to make music is there more than ever.
As the interview comes to a close, Shamsher takes a sip of his Guinness, and then stands up to see me off, his farewell somewhat unique ”” he stands, places his hand on his chest, and bows his head in the most gracious goodbye I can recall receiving. This must be what they call the Joi vibe.