Joi sounded like the future, back in the day. Right here, right now, they still do. The original Asian fusionists were always one step ahead of the game, what with their DJ-led mix of breakbeats and Eastern grooves, their electronic roots and real playing values, the way they would gig as both a sound system and as a fully-fledged band with vocals, keyboards and guitar as well as tabla, flute and sitar.
Then there was their message. One love. One vibe. Victory in unity. Liberty through music: 'Set yourself free,' they said, and hundreds of thousands of people at clubs, festivals and gatherings put their hands in the air and danced like no one was watching, claiming a shared identity, revelling in feeling part of a tribe. Joi weren't simply a band or a sound system. As testified by their wildly acclaimed, gloriously inventive Real World recordings - 1999's One and One is One, 2000's We Are Three and 2007's Without Zero - Joi were a way of thinking. A philosophy.
Set yourself free with the spirit of Joi.
Tracks such as 'Fingers', 'Joi Bani' and their first major vinyl outing, 1997's 'Desert Storm' ('One of the most inventive dance records ever made,' declared the NME) travelled the world, and the world lapped them up. Everyone wanted a piece of Farook and Haroon Shamsher, two longhaired brothers from Brick Lane via Bradford and Bangladesh who'd grown up listening to hip-hop, reggae and dancehall and bhangra, drones and ragas in equal measure.
Major labels came knocking, waving chequebooks. There was a brief, ill-fated signing. Then the Shamshers found their spiritual home. 'Welcome to the family,' said Peter Gabriel, when Joi shook hands with Real World Records.
"Real World first saw us playing at the Blue Note," says Farook Shamsher of the now legendary venue in east London's Hoxton Square. "We used to get a very cool, very mixed crowd. We'd pin our mother's saris on the walls and get our incense going, and then we'd let our records speak for us. Wherever we played - London, Britain, Europe - we rocked it. We made music that changed minds."
Joi were at the vanguard of the Asian Underground, a clubland movement that came out of Talvin Singh's weekly nights at the Blue Note, and the monthlies by the Outcaste label. The Blue Note was a magnet for such young British Asian musicians and Djs as Joi, Asian Dub Foundation, Cornershop, Fun-da-mental and Nitin Sawhney, all of who went on to greatness.
Ever the trailblazers, Joi had already established their own Thursday club night, Asian Vibes, when the Blue Note was still called the Bass Clef.
"The area was totally different back then," remembers Farook. "It was real hide-your-money-in-your-socks stuff. A lot of people were afraid to come down. So to set up a club in a place where there were no other clubs, let alone any other clubs promoting Asian music, was a risk. But it was a risk that paid off."
The sons of Soni Shamsher, a professional flautist who had a Brick Lane shop selling saris and traditional instruments from the Indian subcontinent, the young Farook and Haroon would stay up late watching their father jamming with Baul artists; sessions they'd record on cassette and sell on the street. This sort of DIY aesthetic informed their career beginnings in the Joi Bangla Sound System, an outfit that saw them spinning records in local youth clubs around Brick Lane with a vibe that was inclusive and outward-looking from the get-go.
Joi progressed through DJing to writing and recording their own music: "We moved away from daytime gigs and bhangra to playing cubs like Bombay Jungle and the Wag and promoting Asian music in general. We would play a James Brown groove and very slowly mix in a traditional Bengali thing, then turn it up until the crowd were moving to the traditional tune alone."
The brothers released numerous singles - breakbeat workouts, techno experiments, mystical instrumentals - on different record labels in the mid to late 1990s. By which time punters were queuing around the block to get into the Joi Sound System's bi-monthly nights at the Dog Star in Brixton, eager to catch a glimpse of Farook and his elder brother variously mixing exclusive DATs with vinyl, chucking in breaks and samples and playing live over the top: "Which people still aren't doing," says Farook with a shrug.
By 1998 Joi had done over 1,500 gigs as a sound system, and their crossover band featuring vocalist Susheela Raman, guitarist Vik Sharma and percussionist Bongo Paul had played everywhere from WOMAD to the Big Chill and Glastonbury and supported the mega-popular Spiritualized on tour. Joi had just released their Real World debut One and One Is One and were gigging and travelling intensively when tragedy struck: Haroon Shamsher contracted a blood clot and died from a heart attack. He was thirty-four.
After a period of mourning, Farook - as Joi - returned in 2000 with We Are Three, a tribute album that featured many of the recordings Haroon had made when he travelled to Sony Shamsher's village in Bangladesh. Opening track 'Journey' immerses the listener in the sounds of village life before opening out into a work threaded with Asian vocals, funk riffs, dub ragga, tabla rhythms and mellow grooves: "Haroon's vibe is there on every single track," says Farook.
2007's shamelessly upbeat Without Zero is a fusion of both Joi's previous albums, a work that deepens and continues the Joi family vibe. The accomplished likes of Mumbai-based sitarist Niladri Kumar, Algerian-born oud player and multi-instrumentalist Yazid and longtime Joi collaborators, John Coxon and Ashley Wales of jazz/electronic duo Spring Heel Jack grace a record with a distinct Arabic influence, highlighting the similarities between Asian music and Arabic music - underlining Joi's mission to unite different cultures.