Obituary: Haroon Shamsher

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEDNESDAY, the singer Peter Gabriel and Womad Artistic Director Thomas Brooman welcomed friends and media at Real World Studios near Bath to celebrate 10 years of Real World Records and highlight the upcoming 18th Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festival. Joi, the pioneering outfit formed by Haroon and Farook Shamsher, played a storming set and were one of the undisputed highlights of the day alongside the Afro Celt Sound System.

Twenty-four hours later, Haroon Shamsher, who had been ill for a week but had nevertheless managed to perform, went to hospital for a check- up and died of a suspected heart attack. Haroon's promising career was cut short in its prime, just as the group he had formed with his brother was making inroads into the mainstream and creating a buzz on the festival circuit.

Though his family was originally from Bengal, Haroon Shamsher was born in Bradford and raised in the East End of London. With his younger brother Farook, he started the Joi Bangla Sound System in the mid- Eighties, spinning records in local youth clubs around the Brick Lane area of London.

As DJs, their musical policy was all-inclusive. "We were born and brought up here and influenced by hip hop, funk, soul and reggae," Haroon told interviewers.

But our dad, who was a professional flautist, had a shop in Brick Lane selling saris and musical instruments he imported from India, like tablas and sitars. He also had all these old 45s of Hindi stuff as well as Indian classical records and traditional Bengali music. And sometimes he organised jamming sessions with Baul artists. We used to miss school because we'd been up all night with these musicians. And then we would spend ages selling the tapes directly on to the street.

Soon their club dates attracted a dedicated following excited by sets which featured the Shamsher brothers rapping on top of a Michael Jackson or James Brown track seamlessly mixed into bangra grooves. "It was seen as off-the-wall Paki music but it seemed very natural to us. We wanted to give our own people a sense of identity," said Farook. If Asian parents were puzzled, second-generation kids were hooked.

In the early Nineties, Joi's Deep Asian Vibes sessions at the Bass Clef in London sometimes featured their fellow DJs Andy Weatherall and Alex Patterson of The Orb and spread the vibe further. "We've always attracted a mixed, lively crowd: black, white, Asian, Oriental. Whatever their background, as long as they aren't fighters or fashion victims, they're welcome to join us," said Haroon.

A legendary appearance at the Astoria in London even featured the future Ginger Spice Geri Halliwell as a dancer. "Because of our Eastern sound, she turned up in this skimpy leotard and did this belly-dancing routine. We were like: er, we're not really that kind of band. Will you go away and put some clothes on please? And she did, thank God," admitted Farook.

Haroon Shamsher and his brother still messed around at the back of their father's shop, making tapes with the use of an echo chamber, Roland synthesisers and whatever instruments they could blag. Once in a while, they released the odd self-financed single such as "Tajma House", the acid "Funky Asian", or "Desert Storm", which was named Single of the Week in the New Musical Express.

The late Nineties has been a time when proud British Asians such as Cornershop, Talvin Singh and Black Star Liner featured in style and music magazines as well as broadsheet newspapers. While welcoming this new acceptance, Haroon remained wary. "We can't be disappointed that the media is finally paying attention to the Asian scene because it is what we have worked towards. But I hope it isn't going to be seen as a passing phase."

By 1998, Joi had done over 1,500 gigs as a sound system. They made the transition from featuring their own dat tapes to gigging as a fully-fledged band with the addition of the vocalist Susheela Raman, the guitarist Vik Sharma and the percussionist Bongo Paul. Using traditional instruments like tabla, sitar and flute on top of driving techno rhythms, with the odd ambient, reflective, mystical moment thrown in for good measure, the crossover band played Womad and Tribal Gathering and supported Spiritualized on tour.

Having put themselves in the capable hands of the former Shamen manager Charles Cosh in 1994, Joi signed to Real World Records and released the limited-edition single "Fingers" in December 1998. A Justin Robertson remix was a favourite on the club scene and paved the way for the entrancing follow-up, "Asian Vibes", issued earlier this year.

Sessions on Radio One, XFM, GLR and Kiss FM helped the debut album, One and One is One, earn great critical acclaim on its release three months ago. In particular, the final track, "Joi Bani", proved a crowd favourite, much to Haroon's delight. " `Joi Bani' comes from the word kurbani: sacrifice. Joi means joyous and victory to the music we make. The vibe we preach is not quite militant, not hippyish. It's just about one vibe with everyone together," said the laid-back Haroon Shamsher.

Joi had also recently remixed "Sweet Pain", a track by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for inclusion on the Star Rise tribute album (1997). Their unique, enchanting, forward-looking blend of bangra and Western beats was well on its way to becoming the sound of the new millennium. All of their forthcoming live appearances, including Womad and the Eclipse festivals, have been cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Haroon Shamsher, musician, disc jockey, songwriter and producer: born Bradford 14 November 1965; died London 8 July 1999.