Tragedy and celebration are rarely the simultaneous hallmarks of a CD. Yet Joi's sophomore release, We Are Three, contains both in equal quantities.
The Anglo-Asian band, consisting of brothers Farook and Haroon Shamsher, was literally torn in half when Haroon died of a heart attack at age 34 in 1999.
"The record is a tribute to my brother," explained Farook Shamsher. "He went to record in our ancestral village in Bangladesh before he passed away, with the intention of using those recordings on our next album."
Haroon's field recordings form the heart of the disc, which Farook completed quickly in 32 days. Farook acknowledged that starting the project alone was difficult. "But in the end I found it easy, and completed it around a European Eurythmics tour we played on. I had no choice but to complete it in Haroon's name and memory."
Joi began in the mid-'80s. "To hear the music we were into, we had to make it ourselves," Shamsher said, "so we put on club events." Blending techno and Bengali influences, they released their first single, "Taj Mahouse," in 1988, long before the term Asian Underground was a twinkle in Talvin Singh's eye.
"They were undoubtedly pioneers," offered Bob Duskis, head of Six Degrees records, which specializes in electronic world music. "They were deejaying and releasing records before there really was an Asian scene. And they've stuck to it and developed."
Joi's moment arrived when they signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World label and released their debut album, One and One Is One, which won a BBC Asia Music Award in 1999.
While nearly all of the new album revolves around a mix of Haroon's field recordings and Farook's studio inspiration, one track, the funky "Don't Cha Know That" (RealAudio excerpt), was laid down in 1993. "We edited it down from a 20-minute track, because the record company wouldn't let me use the long version."
The meld of rural Bangladesh and urban London is typified by "Prem" (RealAudio excerpt), on which a catchy bassline and guitars accompany a 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl's vocal.
"I heard her on one of Haroon's tapes, and it completely blew me away," recalled Shamsher. "It demanded a New Order guitar riff."
Although Joi's ethnic background make them part of Britain's burgeoning yet informal Asian Underground movement, Shamsher is definitely ready to move beyond it. On "Tacadin" (RealAudio excerpt) a voice asserts, "This is not the sound of Asian Underground. This is music." While Shamsher is proud to be Asian, and his music remains culturally oriented, "music is so varied and wide. We want to be seen as artists. Not just Asian artists, but artists."
Duskis agreed that the pigeonhole has outlived its usefulness.
"They feel reined in by the Asian Underground tag," he insisted. "And how underground is it when Talvin Singh wins the Mercury Prize [a British music award]?"
Farook Shamsher has found some closure with We Are Three and now looks to the future. A U.S. tour is in the works and he's scoring a film. He's also thinking about collaborating outside the group for the first time. "We'd take it wider, really fuse East with West." He also hopes to work on the unreleased tracks he recorded with his brother, more than 30 of which date from before their first album.
While Farook can never forget or replace his brother, Haroon's death, he said, "has given me more strength to carry on and know exactly what I want to do, regardless of the record company, finances or media. I'm going to pursue what I believe in. I'm going to keep spreading the Joi vibe."