Distantly famous

April 2, 2005

The Montreal Gazette

Montreal’s JoSH is not troubled by mobs of fans at home, but over in South Asia, MTV India picked the duo as best new artist and their songs are everywhere on radio, TV.

APARITA BHANDARI

SPECIAL TO THE GAZETTE

By the time JoSH came on stage at Toronto’s Docks Nightclub, the 3,000-plus audience was primed to greet the Montreal-based duo that’s become a pop sensation in South Asia.

Opening with their popular bhangra remix of Nelly Furtado’s single Powerless (Say What You Want), JoSH kept up the tempo, singing popular tracks from their second album Kabhi (Sometimes).

“We’re from Montreal, and Montreal really rocks with us. But we want to see how Toronto does it,’ yelled Rupinder Magon, while Qurram Hussain romanced the crowd.

The irony is that almost no one knows about JoSH in Montreal, but they get hounded for autographs in New Delhi, Magon says.

“One of my favourite shows was in a coffeeshop called Caffeine, in Karachi,” he said. “It was a 50-seater and 150 people crammed into the place. We weren’t really supposed to sing, but we walked up and sang maybe 10 words of Kabhi, and the crowd sang the rest. It was unbelievable.

“In Montreal, we can just walk out on the streets, and no one will know. And that is great. As much as we love performing and touring, it’s always nice to come back home.”

Today, JoSH is as famous a Canadian export in South Asia as Bryan Adams and Alanis Morissette. In South Asia, JoSH is on regular rotation on music TV channels and radio playlists. Fans line up for autographs, and performances command audiences ranging from a few hundred to 15,000. Last December, JoSH won MTV India’s award for best new artist (non-film category), after performing onstage with U.K. bhangra singer Sukhbir.

JoSH has been ripping up the MTV World Chart Express with a popular mix of tracks inspired by bhangra (the folk music and dance from the Indian state of Punjab) and Urdu ballads with a North American sensibility. Kabhi’s title track stayed in the Top 10 for more than 25 weeks after its release last year.

It’s been more than a decade since Magon and Hussain – or Rup and Q – first met on the bus from Brossard to Champlain College. At the time, Magon was part of a four-member version of JoSH. The band was looking for a keyboardist and Hussain fit the bill. In those days – Magon and Hussain went on to get degrees in economics and engineering, respectively, at Concordia University – JoSH used to perform covers of Bollywood and popular bhangra songs, playing at such venues as Theatre St. Denis, the Spectrum and Place St. Henri.

Bhangra has become a part of South Asian popular culture – and beyond. Now, it gets sampled by urban artists; most recently, United Kingdom bhangra producer Panjabi MC collaborated with Jay-Z on the popular track Beware of the Boyz (Mundian To Bach Ke).

“We started out playing covers, and having some fun,” Hussain said. “Slowly we started doing originals, just gave it shot. And slowly the bug of doing originals bit us.”

But it wasn’t always an easy road to South Asian stardom for JoSH, which has been whittled down from a quartet to a duo.

“People didn’t greet us with open arms right from the beginning,” Hussain said.

It was tough being a South Asian band in Quebec, as opposed to cities like Vancouver and Toronto with a significant community of the South Asian diaspora, but that’s the sort of music that came naturally to JoSH.

“At home, although I was born in Montreal, I was more influenced by the kirtans (devotional songs) at the gurudwara (Sikh place of worship). I was more influenced by (Sufi singer) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bollywood,” said Magon. “I didn’t know English music. I still don’t know it that much. I listen to more Indian music, that’s just the way it is.”

The North American flavour is more Hussain’s contribution. Born in Muscat, Oman, and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, Hussain has lived in Montreal for over a decade. Hussain considers himself to have been influenced by such bands as Guns N’ Roses and Europe, as well as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
“How do you put boundaries on music culturally?” asks Hussain. “We’ve grown up listening to everything. And our music reflects that. We’ve never tried to define our music.”

Experimenting with this hybrid sound, JoSH decided it wasn’t enough to play for the South Asian diaspora. Besides, any big South Asian act in the diaspora comes via the homeland. So, JoSH dreamt of grabbing a chunk of that music-industry pie.

“It was just logical that our biggest market was in South Asia,” said Hussain. “There was no point in being an independent band and trying to get released here in the world music market, when our audience was going to be massive in India. It was harder, and it took us longer, but all things considered it worked out best for us.”

JoSH’s first Indian foray was in 1998. They landed in Mumbai, looked up the addresses of recording companies from the back of Indian CD covers and asked a rickshaw-wallah to take them around. They “got thrown out of a few places,” said Magon, and were told their sound was “too modern” for an Indian market saturated with Bollywood music at the time.

“There was no Indian pop,” said Magon. “We were ahead of the times.”

But JoSH persevered. They tinkered with their sound in Montreal and regularly travelled to India. Full-time students with part-time telemarketing jobs, JoSH had limited financial resources. So they borrowed money from friends and family and shot their first original video, the title track of the debut original album Main Hoon Tanha (I Am Alone). With demos and the video in hand, they went back to India in 2001. This time they managed to catch the interest of TIPS Music, India’s largest film music distributor, which released their album in 2002.

Despite the success of Main Hoon Tanha – the title track was a No. 1 single on Indian music charts – Magon and Hussain were unsure about pursuing full-time music careers. Growing up, they’d both had intense discussions with their parents, who preferred to see them in regular 9-to-5 jobs. And they were newbies in the business, without a band or tour manager. Main Hoon Tanha got them several performance requests, but there was no marketing plan for the band.

So, Magon and Hussain came back and took full-time jobs, and tried to continue musically on a part-time basis. But with Magon’s job as a software sales manager in New York City, it was tough. JoSH went on hiatus.

After 9/11, Magon returned to Montreal and got a job at Sygenics Corporation, an information management technology development company.

“This time, (Hussain) and I got a job at the same company, and all we would do is talk music all day,” laughed Magon. “The guy who owned the company is JoSH’s biggest ambassador. He was the one who had told us, ‘No more covers, record original tracks.’ His name is Raj Vadavia. Poor Raj, he used to ask us to do some work as well. But at the same time, he has this almost undying love for us, our music.

“We completed Kabhi two years before its release. In the process, we also met with Nelly Furtado. It all kind of came together.”

About their remix of her Powerless, Furtado told The Record Music Magazine in an interview excerpted on the duo’s Web site, www.planetjosh.com: “I loved it. I thought it had a great beat and it gets a lot of play on hip-hop stations here. … I might do some more stuff with JoSH.

Kabhi was released by Universal Music India in 2004. A much more polished album, it was co-produced by Carol Bergeron and Karl Wolf, who’ve worked with artists such as La Chicane and Eric Lapointe. The video for the title track was directed by Pierre-Alexandre Bouchard, who works in video production at MusiquePlus. Kabhi started off a bidding war between MTV India and Channel V and Sony Entertainment Television. MTV India won exclusive rights.

“I have never heard anything like JoSH,” said Bergeron, who has also worked on Star Academie. “Their vocal quality, the complexities of their vocal abilities is very good. It makes them unique.”

These days, JoSH has a hectic schedule between recording tracks in Montreal, sourcing music from South Asia, and a tour schedule that takes them from Kuala Lumpur to Karachi, with pit stop performances in London, Ont., Los Angeles and New Jersey.

Their third album will be released this summer. They recently shot their fourth video, an English song titled Meri Jaan, and are working on getting it on MusiquePlus and MuchMusic, to make it their debut on Canadian music TV.

JoSH has also completed the score of an upcoming Bollywood-Hollywood co-production called It’s a Mismatch, which will be released worldwide this summer.

For more on the band, see www.planetjosh.com online.

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