Without Zero

Joi

Released 19 January 2007

  1. Praying For You
  2. Come Back To Me
  3. The Blessing
  4. What You Are
  5. Cha Cha Cha
  6. Forget Me Not
  7. My Love
  8. Amar Kahani
  9. Show Me Love

Liner notes

Let the rejoicing begin: Joi are back. Not that these mystical maestros, these Eastern-leaning experimentalists, have been away, mind you. Their legacy lives on in clubland, at festivals, just as their philosophy —spiritual unity through music— has continued unabated. But the arrival of their third album, the superbly crafted Without Zero, begs a fanfare. Propelled by Western beats, lifted by celestial Indian voices and coloured by traditional Asian and Arabic instrumentation, it’s a giant step in an already groundbreaking journey.

Having blazed a trail in the mid Eighties with their DJ-led mix of brittle breakbeats and flowing Eastern grooves —a trail that the so-called ‘Asian Underground’ followed in droves— this British Asian collective released two compelling, intelligent albums, 1999’s One and One Is One and 2002’s We Are Three. Celebratory and devotional, progressive and respectful, laden with different emotions yet bound by a one-love aesthetic, they stole the hearts of critics, clubbers and exemplary music-lovers alike.

The shamelessly upbeat Without Zero deepens and continues the Joi family vibe— with minimal use of samples. Real playing values are what count here: the blinding sitar of Mumbai-based genius and ‘Asian Hendrix’, Niladri Kumar. The pure Hindi and Urdu language vocals and chants of London’s Apeksha Dandekar. The zorna, oud and banjo playing of Algerian-born Yazid. The guitar-stylings of Keefe West and long-time Joi collaborators/producers, John Coxon and Ashley Wales of jazz/electronic duo Spring Heel Jack. Oh, and composer, programmer and co-founder Farook Shamsher, of course.

Joi at Dogstar, Brixton. Photo credit: York Tillyer

“I’m the spice chef. I grind the spices,” says Farook from a coffee shop in Brick Lane, the beating heart of East London’s Bengali community. “The master chefs put it all together. But I have the final say on how it tastes.” He is justifiably proud of the end result. “There is dance and drama and passion throughout this record. We’ve highlighted Asian culture. We’ve extended our electronic roots. And this time there’s a distinct Arabic influence,” he adds with a smile. “Asian music and Arabic music merge beautifully. They’re actually very similar, which people don’t tend to realise, and Joi is about uniting different cultures.”

Joi have always sought to illuminate, to push boundaries, to pique interest in other cultures while boldly bringing such cultures together. Their album titles are a case in point; just as One and One is One is a quote from the Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and We Are Three references the work of the great Sufi poet Rumi, Without Zero nods to Hindu mathematician, Brahmagupta —born 598BC— the man who is credited with having put forth the concept of zero for the first time. “There are so many Asian geniuses that are still unsung in the West,” says Farook. “We want to engage peoples’ imaginations, get them thinking and exploring.”

Photo credit: Steve Double
"We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made." Albert Einstein

‘Set yourself free with the spirit of Joi’ read the T-shirts of clubbers who, hands in the air, were among the first to dance wildly to Farook and his late elder brother Haroon’s banging bhangra fusion in clubs not too far from where Farook sits now. “We would play a James Brown groove and very slowly mix in a traditional Bengali thing and then turn it up until the crowd moved to the traditional tune alone.” Farook sighs, smiles. “They probably saw it as mad, off-the-wall Paki music, but it was very natural to us. We wanted to give our people a sense of musical identity.” A feeling, if you like, that they were not alone.

The sons of a professional flautist who ran a traditional Asian music shop in Brick Lane, the Shamsher brothers matched their love of Bengali, Bollywood and qawwali music with their passion for hip hop, soul, funk, reggae and other urban stylings. They moved from being a sound system with tabla players improvising over beats to performing as a live band with wide-ranging instrumentalists and guest vocalists. When it suited them, they went back to being a sound system again. Along the way, they changed perceptions.

“Club culture is really interesting at the moment,” Farook muses. “There’s a lot of Asian music, a lot of bhangra. A lot of Asian-only gigs. Young Asians are feeling really proud of their culture.” He pauses for a beat. “Look out there,” he says, gesturing towards the street. “I love what’s happened to Brick Lane. It’s become what Joi was always about —a place where you can party, buy cool clothes, eat cool food and mix with a traditional Asian population. It’s multicultural London at its best.”

Haroon would be proud, he says of the brother and soulmate who passed away suddenly in July, 1999, aged 33. We Are Three, whose tracks featured recordings of local musicians that Haroon had made in his family’s village in Bangladesh, was made in tribute. “I could have done another devotional album but that’s not what Haroon would have wanted. In many ways Without Zero is a fusion of both Joi’s previous albums, while embracing all that’s going on in Asian music today.”

Without Zero… there would be no modern mathematics, no algebra, no modern science, and our understanding of the universe would be vastly impoverished.

Farook had already written a lot of new material when he met the progressive sitarist Niladri Kumar in Mumbai (“India’s Miami”) over two years ago. He promptly ditched most of it and started all over again. “Niladri blew me away. He’s this dynamic guy who has played with Ravi Shankar, and who is reinventing sitar rhythms. He understands modern music as much as he does traditional  so he improvises really freely. He shows a entire range of emotions.” The admiration was mutual: “He told me, ‘Farook, I’ve played for you like I’ve never played for anyone else’.”

‘Come Back to Me’ is a paean to Haroon. ‘Wapasaja,’ sings Apeksha, her golden voice soaring over a drum’n’bass beat. ‘Come back to me’. “I sat down with Apeksha and explained what the album meant to me, that this track was about someone who didn’t get to say goodbye but whose light we know is still shining. I’ve played this at gigs in Mumbai and Bangladesh and the people love it, understand it.”

The potent, thoughtful ‘Forget Me Not’ is a mind bending, space guitar-instrumental, save for a sample of one of Haroon’s village recordings —a Bengali man intoning that one should never forget. ‘My Love’ is a stomping club track that sees Niladri exploring and celebrating different raags and scales; ‘The Blessing’ makes the most of Keefe West’s pentatonic, African guitar rhythms. ‘Cha Cha Cha’ is an effervescent culture clash, a sort of Run DMC- style collision that drops a sample of electronica guru Man Parrish’s ‘Two Sisters’ in with choppy rock guitar, banjo excursions and a cheeky cha cha cha rhythm.

Without Zero opens with the shimmering instrumental, ‘Praying For You’ — “It fuses Indian rhythms and Arabic rhythms, and creates a message of peace, love and hope” —and closes with ‘Show Me Love’, a track that gives thanks as it brings the Joi story together. “Niladri plays the same rhythm in different ways on that one, very fast, very beautifully, very mathematically. It’s transcendental. The icing on the cake.”

Joi have always said that their message is in their music. On Without Zero, an album filled with unions, epiphanies and creative meetings of minds, their message is palpable.

“This whole album is a journey, you know,” says Farook Shamsher. “One that will help people open their hearts.”

Jane Cornwell

Reviews

  • Spirited, experimentally minded soundclash that's as fun as it is inspired BBC World Review (UK)
  • Farook Shamsher's Joi are the Faithless of British Asian breakbeat. Both grew out of late-'80s rave, both unite weird electronica with the Whirl-Y-Gig end of crusty rave... And, like Faithless, they're still making dated but often thrilling big beat with a trancey, shamanic edge. Uncut (UK)
  • Farook and long-time collaborators/producers Spring Heel Jack have here produced an amazing fusion album...There's no doubt that Haroon would have been proud of the musical fruits Farook and co have harvested. It's largely dominated by Western beats, with the programming of the tracks giving a space to allowing the ethereal Indian voices to really lift the music. Songlines (UK)
  • Fantastic return. Next time don't leave it so long Swell Music (UK)

Listen

Credits

Vocals: Apeksha Dandekar except track 3 Elysha West. Guitars: John Coxon. Guitar and saz: Keefe West. Sitar: Niladri Kumar. Zorna, oud, banjo: Yazid

All tracks produced by Farook Shamsher, additional production by Bruno Ellingham except track 6 produced by Farook Shamsher, additional production by John Coxon and Ashley Wales. Additional production track 2 Rod Bowkett, track 3 Keefe West, track 4 Neckha, track 9 Steve Dominique. All tracks except 6 engineered and mixed by Bruno Ellingham in The Bunker at Real World Studios. Track 6 mixed by Mads Bjerke. Tracks 4, 5, 7, 8 programming by Olly Meacock. Tracks 2, 7, 8 sitars and tablas recorded by Aslam Khan in Mumbai, India. “Cha Cha Cha” sample by Two Sisters produced by Man Parrish. Sample courtesy of Sugar Scoop Records/Man Parrish.

A Real World Design by Marc Bessant. Cover illustration by Alan Tabrett. Photography of Farook Shamsher by Steve Double.

To all the people who have been part of this record and supported Joi. This is our creation. As a movement moves on, thank you.

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    Joi Sound System is a 22 track double album compiled from Joi's three gloriously inventive albums: 1999's One and One is One, 2000's We Are Three and 2007's Without Zero, plus three bonus tracks. Three sublime albums. A dazzling assemblage of tracks. Choosing a Best Of was never doing to be easy. And yet...
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