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Emergency on Planet Earth



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The Return of the Space Cowboy



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Travelling Without Moving



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A Funk Odyssey


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The Return of the Funky Cowboy

By Sabrina Laurent

Ten years ago, the British band Jamiroquai and its emblematic leader Jason Kay (or Jay Kay) released their first album. Today, they're one of the most popular bands on the planet.

Music would probably feel a lot sadder without Jamiroquai. Not only did they make popular their underground sound, they also revived funky music and made it fashionable again.

Everything started with one man, Jason Kay, the leader of the band. He was born in December 1969 in Stretford, a southwestern suburb of Manchester, of a Portuguese father (who he only recently met) and a jazz singer named Karen Kay. Of his childhood, Jason (his nickname is Jay) mainly remembers a lot of travelling around, following his mom and, as a result, loneliness. A couple years after they moved to Ealing, a northwestern suburb of London, Jay left home, and started hanging around.

The Birth of the Buffalo man

It didn't take long though for Jay to understand that his lifestyle wouldn't lead him to anything good. Almost sleeping in the street, trying different little jobs, he also realized that the situation was getting more and more dangerous, as he nearly got seriously injured in fights. He decided to go back to live with his mother and shortly after, created the whole new concept of Jamiroquai. Deeply concerned about ecology, fascinated by Native American tribes, Jason became the Buffalo Man. He gathered a few friends around him, with a brand new goal: making music. As with many artists, getting started and obtaining a recording contract wasn't that easy, but perserverance and talent always help.

The Conquest of the World

The Acid Jazz label finally gave Jason and his crew their first recording contract and, in October 1992, the first single "When You Gonna Learn?" (which Jason wrote at the age of 16) was released. Entirely inspired by Jay's concern for ecology, the song encountered a fair success, enough to get the attention of Sony Soho Square (the British branch of Sony Music).

The group's first album, Emergency on Planet Earth came out in June 1993, and its hit single "Too Young To Die" made Jamiroquai famous all over the world, especially in Europe. But Jay's band has trouble getting into the American market; MTV even censored the video clip for "When You Gonna Learn?" because it was showing, among other things, images of the Holocaust and experiments on animals, which was "politically incorrect!" On the second album, The Return of the Space Cowboy, references to the use of cannabis were also censored.

Facing Prejudices

But as much as Jamiroquai becomes more and more successful and sells more albums (the album Travelling Without Moving, released in 1996, sold 10 million copies!), the band has to face prejudices and critics. The most popular one accused Jay Kay of copying Stevie Wonder's voice and of wearing odd hats, and claimed that his music was not so creative. Also, the same journalists who condmen racism everyday and call for openness of mind could not get over the fact that a young white boy could play the kind of music that was traditionnally played by Black people. More recently, some members such as Toby Smith and Stuart Zender left the group for nebulous reasons, and Jay Kay's private life became surexposed when he dated the British TV star Denise Van Outen (The Big Breakfast). And yet, through it all, Jamiroquai became more and more popular, even when some fans started to deny the group.

An Unique Mixture

You'll easily understand, if you listen to all Jamiroquai's albums, what some fans mean when they say they wish the band had stuck to its initial musical style. And at the same time, you can also wonder: would those fans be more satisfied if Jamiroquai was still playing the music from ten years ago? Wouldn't they accuse them of not evolving and doing the same thing again and again? The diversity of Jamiroquai's music is amazing. They started with acid jazz (Emergency on Planet Earth, The Return of the Space Cowboy), added a good bit of funk and, more original, used didgeridoos, an Aboriginal instrument, that can be heard on songs such as "When You Gonna Learn?" and "Journey to Arnhemland." This unique mixture of influences and sound made Jamiroquai's music very "underground" and hard to classify. But it sure did seduce a lot of people.

Ups and Downs

Very influenced by 70's and early 80's Soul and Funk music, and probably Disco as well, Jamiroquai's more recent work makes you think of artists such as Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Earth Wind and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone and, obviously, Stevie Wonder. The change started with the album Travelling Without Moving, that a lot of fans found "too commercial." And indeed, its first single "Virtual Insanity" was a huge hit worldwide that definitely made Jamiroquai go from being underground to popular. The band even started to get a (small) audience in the United States. The following album (Synkronized) didn't encounter as much success, though. The only song people probably remember from it is "Canned Heat," heavily influenced by disco music. When Jamiroquai got too "electronic" with the song "Supersonic," radio stations got afraid of not fitting their audience's needs and, as a general fact, the album suffered from poor promotion and a lack of coherence. Still, four million copies were sold, and it was a hit in Japan particularly. Also, the success of the bonus track "Deeper Underground," specially written as a soundtrack for the movie Godzilla, kept Jay's crew in the charts.

Funky Odyssey

After the relative success of Synkronized, Jay Kay promised that such low sales would not be repeated, and started working on the fifth album. Called A Funk Odyssey, it was released in September 2001 and surprised a lot of people. If the first single released, "Little L," is a very funk-inspired song, the rest of the album proposes an interesting variety. While fans were begging for more acid jazz, Jamiroquai tried out new styles such as bossa nova ("Corner of the Earth") and, very influenced by the French duet Daft Punk, included a heavy dose of electronic sounds in "Feels So Good" or "Twenty Zero One." And, on more "funky" tracks (such as "Love Foolosophy" and "Main Vein"), the singer Beverley Knight did the background vocals. As a general fact, Jamiroquai became a popular band, although still rather underground in America. In a decade, the lyrics have changed as well as the music.

Explicit Lyrics

The title of the first album, Emergency on Planet Earth, sums up the whole philosophy of Jamiroquai. Very preoccupied by ecology and humanity, Jay Kay rebels against the system (listen to the song "Revolution 1993") and asks politicians, as well as the average citizen, to become aware of the serious and dangerous problems our society is now encountering. Songs like "When You Gonna Learn?", "Too Young to Die," and "Emergency on Planet Earth" ask us to "wake up" and do something to prevent pollution, wars, corruption and the destruction of nature. Accused of sounding naïve, Jay Kay gives up on the ecological subject for his second album, and releases the first single the topic of which is the use of marijuana ("Space Cowboy"). Some words, like "cheeba" (slang for marijuana), ended up being censured on American editions. The young man hasn't lost his frustration, though; songs such as "The Kids" or "Just Another Story" show his concern for the difficulties teenagers go through, maybe as a reference to the drug and violence problems he himself got involved in when he was younger. Also, Jay tackles topics like slavery in "Manifest Destiny." But as the music evolves perceptibly with the third album, the lyrics also tend to take another direction.


Jamiroquai became, with the album Travelling Without Moving, a popular band, known by anyone who listens to the radio and reads magazines. As a result, the lyrics started to be less rebellious and became more "universal." Still, the very successful first single "Virtual Insanity" deals with Jay's philosophy of humanity, pointing out our self-destructive behaviour and its disastrous consequences on the ecology. It's a short come back to the band's initial worries though, as it's the only song on the album, other than "High Times" (dealing with drugs), that approaches a serious topic.

In fact, now it looks like Jamiroquai's new goal is to mainly produce music made for enjoyment. Some will say that it simply became "commercial." But isn't it the price to pay when you encounter success? Still the music is good, even on a less successful album like Synkronized, written and composed in turmoil (the bassist of the group left, and Jay seemed to have some problems back then with his ex-fiancée Denise Van Outen). Although the CD insert is filled with pretty pictures of nature sceneries, only one song deals with the environment ("Planet Home"). The remaining songs invite the audience to get up and dance ("Canned Heat") and above all, relate the problems of Jay's relationship with Denise ("Falling," "Butterfly," "Where do We Go From Here?"). Lastly, A Funk Odyssey, is the album that definitely showed to the world the carefree side of Jay Kay as well as the most intimate. We discover a young man who's still in love with nature ("Corner of the Earth"), wants to have some fun ("Feels So Good"), and who's still a little deceived by his romance with Denise Van Outen ("Little L"). We also learn that the media frustrates him ("Main Vein") as well as the recurrent topic of humanity's doom ("Twenty Zero One," "Black Crow"). The last song of the album ("Picture Of My Life") certainly is the most personal Jay ever wrote, and the man becomes touching in his (unexpected) despair.

There's no telling what Jay Kay and his crew have in store for their next album that most fans hope to be more "jazzy". But we can count on their ability to soon provide the addicts with more funky sound, for dancing as well as for simply listening. And, hopefully, their message of peace, and respect towards nature will have reached us.

When you gonna learn?

Jamiroquai's official website:


1993: Emergency on Planet Earth

1994: The Return of the Space Cowboy

1996: Travelling Without Moving

1999: Synkronized

2001: A Funk Odyssey

* Sony Music

Who is Jamiroquai?

The name of the group confused a lot of people at first, by its meaning and also because they thought Jamiroquai was one man (Jay Kay). Ten years after its creation, Jay is the only member who actually stayed in the band, as other members joined or left later. Today, we count six permanent members:

Jason "Jay" Kay Vocals
Derrick McKenzie Drums
Nick Fyffe Bass (replacing Stuart Zender)
Rob Harris Guitar
Sola Akingbola Percussions
Matt Johnson Keyboards

Didgeridoos are performed by Wallis Buchanan.

Also, a lot of non-permanent members sometimes join the group.

Copyright © 2003 Sabrina Laurent. May not be reproduced or used without permission of the author.
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Pictures courtesy of Thanks to David!