Alisha Through The Looking Glass: An Interview with Alisha Sufit

I forgot that James Blackshaw wrote for Foxy Digitalis briefly in the early/mid 2000s, but came across this lovely interview he did in 2005. Alisha Sufit is still out there and you can visit her Facebook page HERE and Magic Carpet Records’ website HERE. – BR

In music, the seldom thrills of discovery are truly joyous occasions. 

When the North London-based group Magic Carpet’s LP was released on Mushroom Records in 1972, it failed to leave an impression on the consciousness of the general record-buying public. It is difficult to say why the music of Jim Alford, Clem Alford, Keshav Sathe, and singer/guitar player Alisha Sufit disappeared through the metaphorical ‘cracks in the sidewalk’, but it is likely that a combination of the label’s economical restraints, which subsequently led to only a small pressing of the album ever being made and the era’s perpetually shifting musical-climate played more than a small a part in the fate of what has become a jeweled crown in the treasure trove of psyche-tinged folk music.

Upon initially hearing Magic Carpet over three decades later, I was dumbfounded by its ethnically diverse instrumentation, adept musicianship, and the sheer mesmerizing depths of Alisha’s vocal talents, which UK guitar-legend Davey Graham has rightly compared to that of Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny. It is in turns haunting and beautiful; happy and sad; poignant and light-hearted. Although I am still thrilled by my own discovery of this unique journey of sound, it has now embraced me with the warmth and familiarity of an old and unusual friend.

For many years, Alisha Sufit has continued to record and perform music, but it is only recently that we have been graced with the fruits of her creativity, releasing two similarly astounding solo albums- Love & The Maiden (unreleased recordings from 1974) and Alisha Through The Looking Glass (1994)- plus another Magic Carpet record, Once Moor, some twenty-four years after the original group’s debut! She has also published a book of her own artwork and poetry, which is available along with all of these recordings via her own label, Magic Carpet Records.

I was delighted with the opportunity to conduct an interview with Alisha by e-mail for Foxy Digitalis magazine. With only days elapsed since I first posed these questions to her, here are the results. 

The self-titled Magic Carpet record is a wonderful mixture of English Folk music and Indian Ragas. How did such an intriguing project come about?

I met Jim Moyes, the “two necked” guitarist (two necks on his homemade guitar, that is, not Jim!) at art school when I was seventeen. I didn’t start singing properly and playing guitar myself till I graduated from Chelsea School of Art. Jim and his friends – Clem Alford, sitar player, and Keshav Sathe, tabla player – had formed the trio Sargam, later misspelled Sagram (oh wanton careless typist!). They approached Vic Keary of Mushroom Records who offered them a record deal with the proviso they get themselves a singer. Jim phoned me and I joined the band. Because I’d been singing and playing with open tunings, i.e. in modal scales, the songs I wrote were instantly compatible with the tuning of the sitar, so the result was all very natural and uncontrived. 

My own musical roots were quite complex – classical music and east European folk, being part of it, with inspiration via Ireland in the form of a gifted musician I met called Michael Colbert, who somehow influenced and inspired me to start singing. Plus I heard the glorious voice of Margaret Barry, the Irish street singer, wafting across the garden one day in 1967. 1967 was a year of extraordinary change and ferment.

This record is now a greatly sought-after item for fans and collectors of acid-folk. How do you feel about that, given its relative obscurity at the original time of its release?

I’m amazed and delighted. It seemed almost unimaginable when I first heard about the record’s collectability. I had to have a sit-down and a cup of tea! No, seriously, I’m very touched. The songs I wrote came from an innocent and sincere place, looking back, and it’s very poignant and encouraging that people out there appreciate what we did. I’m grateful. I just wish I’d been more assertive at the time, and pushed on with the band despite the difficulties in the way. But I was shy and unsure, not someone who found it easy to perform in public. 

From today’s perspective, Eastern music certainly feels like it had a more overt influence on Western music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. What do you feel may have been particular to the climate and your own personal environment during this period to explain this?

A. It’s all a bit of a mystery, though I’m sure there are scholars who’ve followed the intricate trails. I guess ease of communication and general interest in other cultures facilitated exposure to other nations’ music. I can’t recall how I came by my first Ravi Shankar album, but it was in my collection by the time I was eighteen, and it moved me very deeply – still does. I passionately loved the sound of the tabla. I used to have a secret fantasy that I’d been an Indian dancer in another life. In the late 60s and ’70s, there was a new burst of interest in eastern religion – Buddhism, meditation, Hinduism, and music was part of that. 

What prompted Magic Carpet to reform for the album Once Moor, released in 1996? That seems like a long time to wait! What was happening in your own lives in the meantime?

The interest in the original album inspired us to do the second one (though I now have my regrets about the way I mixed it. I should have got Vic Keary to mix it, but it wasn’t practicable at the time). Both Clem and I had carried on with our music continuously: he was experimenting with his own compositions, with the help of various other musicians, and I was continuously writing songs and doing gigs, plus knocking on a lot of industry doors that didn’t open. 

With the advent of high-quality home recording gear, we reckoned we could do it ourselves, in our own time without hassle or hurry. I bought an Allen and Heath desk and an eight-track Alesis Adat machine, plus various bits and pieces. It was great fun and we supported each other amicably throughout. Sound On Sound magazine commissioned me to do an illustrated article about the recording of Once Moor, which is archived on the Internet. 

Are you still in contact with Clem, Jim, and Keshav? What are they all up to now?

Clem is still beavering away in his central London eyrie, living a somewhat monastic and simple life. Keshav is retired after a long and fruitful career, but I’m not sure what Jim is up to these days, as I haven’t spoken to him for a while. When I last saw him he wasn’t playing much, which is a shame, as he wrote some very good tunes, as demonstrated on the Sagram and Magic Carpet records. 

When was Magic Carpet Records set up and what do you feel are the positive aspects of releasing your own music as opposed to another label?

Magic Carpet Records was set up in late 1993 to re-issue the original recording. I decided to do it myself as there were endless behind-the-scenes arguments about how it should be done that weren’t getting us anywhere. I had the original tapes plus the band and I owned the copyright. We had never actually signed with Mushroom. There were a lot of shenanigans going on in the background, so I stepped in to protect the guys’ and my own interest. It’s good to be in control. A big company, or even a minor company, would never be able to justify the effort I’ve put in. 

From listening to Love & The Maiden, your own music as a solo performer seems more rooted in English folk and your guitar playing and fingerpicking technique also has a country-blues feel to it. What primarily influenced you to start making music?

I always listened to music, even as a small child. The first music I heard was classical, from my father’s collection mostly. As I got older, I started my own collection which was very broad – Bulgarian folk music, Davey Graham (who later became a good friend), Blues Brothers, Aretha Franklyn, Incredible String Band, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Phoebe Snow, Julian Bream playing South American guitar tunes, Bach, Handel, Margaret Barry, Mahler, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bruch, Joe Cocker, Paul Brady (another friend), Hunter Muskett, Doctor John, and on and on and on… I guess you can’t deny your roots and you wouldn’t want to. I grew up in England. I sing in English. The way I sound is my natural voice. But I do feel I have a lot in common with those American singers like Buffy Saint Marie, Joni, Melanie, etc. 

Do you have any formal training as a musician or are you self-taught?

I did have some singing lessons when I was younger, which gave me a good foundation, but I’m basically self-taught. Looking back, I should have tried to go a bit faster, I should have tried to be more professional. There was no received tradition when I started out, not for the sort of thing that I was doing. It was all aural, do-it-yourself, with virtually no teachers around, and women were never taken seriously anyway. I only learned to read music in a very basic way when I started singing jazz standards in the 80s. I guess I could have arranged guitar lessons from someone good, but I was very broke in my twenties and there were obstacles in the way. We forget what ease of transport and communication there is now compared to back then.  

Are there any musicians or performers making music at the moment that you particularly like or find inspiring?

Too many to mention, though I will say, right up there on top of the pop tree, I do admire Joss Stone, Natasha Bedingfield, and Anastacia! But I think it’s sad that women have to be so gyratingly sexualized these days to get anywhere, not that those three fall into that trap so much. 

I recently went to a concert by the Sirin choir, singing ancient Russian religious music. It was mind-blowing and I guess it all comes in as an influence. I’m still bowled over by loads of different genres.

I understand you were very shy at the time your early recordings were made – I can certainly relate to that! Despite this, you played a lot of shows around the UK, Europe, and the US, as well as busking in London. Was that a big obstacle for you to overcome?

Yes, is the simple answer. I think stage fright is almost a chemical thing. But playing solo puts a lot of pressure on you. When I play with one or two other people I couldn’t give a damn. I just feel cheerful and light and people could throw rotten tomatoes at me and I’d probably just laugh and toss them back. Someone once gave me a tip – rehearse like mad and get as good as you can, and then you won’t feel so nervy. 

I make sure I do yoga the day before a gig and rest my voice. Silence beforehand is a great help. Also, remember certain rules – relax your shoulders and your feet, sit up straight but relaxed, remember to breathe deeply, relax generally. It’s not the end of the world, it’s not that important in the scheme of things. Focus on what you’re doing, listen with your whole mind, feel the words. It’s just more people like you out there wanting to enjoy your music.

Aside from making music, you also write poetry and draw. Do you feel that all of these things come from the same place and how do they complement each other?

The poetry is just two moves from songwriting, perhaps a little more complex, a little more introverted, but they’re close. When I draw or paint I always work with music playing, something strong and moving to reach that universal level of sweet feeling, that happy/sad, joy/sorrow place. I guess it all comes from that inner space in us all that is in awe of life, pondering the miracle of existence. Sometimes you get full up to overflowing and it comes out in a song or a picture. 

Please tell us about any future plans you might have as an artist. I understand you are in the process of recording a new album. When can we expect to hear it?

Lazy old lady that I am, I’ve been recording material for a while that’s been ready to go for some time, but, somehow, I don’t get round to it. The next CD will be Alisha’s Cellar. I think to myself – is there a place for it? Does anyone want it? You can get despondent. The music industry is so sewn up, so demanding, so censorious. I ought to try to get stuff heard, make more effort. I presume my music will not be accepted before people have even heard it. 

I’d love other voices to do my songs as covers. That would be a real buzz! I’m always kind of surprised when people are enthusiastic about what I do when I have the occasional gig these days. It’s so encouraging, such a shot in the arm! 

I’ve got a huge backlog – just discovered some tapes in Alisha’s attic (seriously!) – that I want to transfer to digital format, plus all the unrecorded songs, around 200 of them. Help! I’d better get a move on…

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