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Magic Carpet interview with Alisha Sufit

March 25, 2014

Magic Carpet interview with Alisha Sufit

There is not much
known about Magic Carpet, besides that they produced what we will call
sitar-inspired folk rock, a perfect mixture of East and West, a blend of
Shankar and Khan. Formed back in 1971 they soon released an LP, that is
acclaimed worldwide as one of the best “sitar” albums out there. Here we have a
special opportunity to talk with Alisha Sufit, who was vocalist, guitarist and
song writer.

Alisha, thank you very much for taking your time. Let me ask you
first about your early influences. Were you interested in Indian music as a
child or did this interest came later when Shankar was embraced in “hippie”
counterculture?
I first heard Indian music consciously when I was
about nine or ten years old. I went to see the film The River by Jean Renoir
(the painter Auguste Renoir’s son). I was very moved by the film and later
sneaked off to a matinée performance to see it again on my own – a curious
child! In London, at that time, children were very free and independent to roam
and play.
Were you from
London?
Yes, I’m from London – born in the old village of
Hampstead, the highest area in London town.
Were you or any
other members in any bands before Magic Carpet? Anything released?
Clem Alford, the sitar player, along with the guitar
player Jim Moyes and percussionist Keshav Sathe played together as a trio. They
called themselves Sargam, an Indian musical term. They were invited to play by
the owner of Windmill Records, who recorded them at the time. They had not signed
a contract to release a record, had given no consent, but some months later
they saw a low budget LP called ‘Sagram – Pop Explosion Sitar Style’ at a
checkout in a supermarket. To their consternation and anger, they had been
bootlegged, their music released without their permission. The most insulting
part about it was the stupid misspelling of the band name, plus the hideous
jokey LP cover showing a man smoking a hookah pipe surrounded by admiring
‘dolly birds.’ I can assure you the man depicted is definitely not Clem Alford,
nor any member of the band. The sleeve notes are hilarious, too. The guys were
very angry that this man had stolen their music and then disappeared, but that
album has since become a collectable. In fact, it’s a charming record so I’m
glad it made it out there.

How did you get in
contact with Clem Alford and the other band mates? And what can you say about
the early beginnings of Magic Carpet?
I first met Jim (James) Moyes, the guitar player,
when I was doing an art foundation course at the Regent’s Street Polytechnic in
London, after which we both went to Chelsea College of Art to do a degree
course. I studied painting and etching. I graduated from Chelsea College of Art
in 1967 and didn’t see Jim until about four years later when he phoned and
asked if I’d like to sing with the trio. It was uncanny as three months
beforehand someone had asked me what sort of group I’d like to be in, and I’d
replied I’d like to be in a band with a sitar and tabla. When I joined the group,
we hit it off musically almost immediately. I was writing songs in open tunings
which were very compatible with the sitar.

Vic Keary of
Mushroom Records signed you up. The label had some interesting artists like
Simon Finn, Chillum, Second Hand and some other bands. What can you say about
this label and do you perhaps know how many copies were made?
I met Simon Finn back in the 1970s and saw him again
quite recently – maybe just six years ago or thereabouts. Also, I remember Ken
Elliott being around in the studio in Chalk Farm, though I didn’t have a close
relationship with him, just said hello and chatted a bit from time to time. I
was told that 1,000 copies of Magic Carpet were pressed, so I presume the other
recordings were pressed in similar quantities. Vic Keary who owned Mushroom
Records was a wonderful engineer, but the business side of the label was always
more shaky. Interestingly, I never actually signed a contract. Somehow, we
never got round to it and when the band split up and the LP sales were poor,
there was no point in signing.

Did you do any
concerts before you got involved with Mushroom Records?
We did some gigs together round the time Vic Keary
of Mushroom Records got interested. One gig was at The 100 Club, which was our
launch as a band. But there were some internal problems, plus some
unprofessional band behaviour, so that was also when I felt I couldn’t
continue. Mind you, Clem and Kesh were always highly professional in their
attitude, so it was not an issue with them. It was not cool for a woman to be
assertive in those days. Women were still expected to be quite passive, so
there was no question of my steering the band into a sensible, working entity.
By early 1972, we simply split up, partly due to the lack of public response
for the LP that had been released by then.

There was only this
LP released, there weren’t any 45 releases, right?
No, the LP was the only recording we did, until I
met up with Clem and did Once Moor (Magic Carpet 2) in the 1990s which I
released on my own label Magic Carpet Records. I engineered and produced it,
a process that was covered in Sound On Sound magazine (http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/1997_articles/apr97/magiccarpet.html).
So let’s get a bit
more into details regarding your album. What are some memories from recording
and producing it and was there a concept behind it?
We didn’t
have a concept, as such. The guys had worked out tunes of their own from their
jamming sessions as a trio, plus they were happy to play along with my
compositions. Apart from Jim’s few songs, they were not into writing lyrics –
that was more my bag. I had a lot of ready-made songs they could play with. The
recording was all analogue, of course, everything valve driven, plus we
recorded as a band all playing together, sitting round as a group with
strategically placed microphones. It was good fun to do and very fast, as there
was no overdubbing to speak of. You had to rehearse your tracks, go into the
studio and do it, and that was that. Gabriel Weissmann, a good friend of mine
from art college, came in on one of the days to take some photographs. I
remember it was very cold that year. Later Gabriel did a photoshoot of the band
in the open air.

What gear did you
guys use and what can you say about the very interesting oriental cover
artwork?
During the recording, I played my Yamaha FG 180
jumbo guitar, which I sold on Ebay a few years ago. I met someone recently who
said a friend of his had bought the guitar and he wondered if the signature
inside the sound hole was genuine. It is. As for the LP sleeve, I designed the
cover with the help of old fashioned Letraset and the picture on the front is
from a cheap Indian print I had pinned on my wall for ages. The special
lettering for the band name was by Glyn Boyd Harte, a renowned illustrator and
artist friend of mine. The front cover image is of Buraq, the mythical winged
creature who is the traditional vehicle of enlightement. She is supposed to
have transported Muhammad, as well as Abraham, but I only found this out
recently. It seemed like a good choice being eastern and featuring a female
face with very long hair, which I had at the time. You can see more on
Wikipedia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buraq).
Can you comment a
bit each song from the LP?
A1:  The Magic Carpet:
this was created by the guys, based on an Indian theme, and named as the title
track.
A2:  The Phoenix: this
is a song I wrote before I met up with Jim and the guys again. It’s loosely
about the transforming and resurrecting power of love. 
A3:  Black Cat: Again,
this is a song I wrote before I came into the band and was a reflection on my
own personal life.
A4:  Alan’s Christmas
Card: This was written by Jim and arranged by the trio.
A5:  Harvest Song:
Another song I wrote prior to joining the band – a reflection on the fact that
we do all reap what we sow! But I think I lost my way a bit as the lyrics
suggest you can have your cake and eat it, unlike the English proverb that says
you can’t have your cake and eat it, if that’s not too much of a brain
boiler. 
A6:  Do You Hear the
Words: This is by Jim, and poses the idea you would listen either to the words
or the music of a song, but I reckon you can do both. It’s typical of its time
in its suggestion that there’s no real need to hurry in life.
B1:  Father Time: Clem
wrote a tune and I had already written some lyrics which mostly fitted, except
for some extra words, so I made up a bit more melody, though who made up which
bit I can no longer recall. Maybe Clem knows which part of the tune is his
composition.
B2:  La La: Again,
this was a tune the guys made up based on an Indian theme.
B3:  Peace Song:
another of my compositions and obviously very much of its time, a celebration
for peace and depth.
B4:  Take Away Kesh:
This track gave Kesh centre stage; the title was a nice little play on words,
as Kesh was Indian and there were lots of Indian take-away restaurants in
London at the time. Of course ‘take it away’ has that groovy jazz-rooted
meaning, too.
B5:  High Street:
There was an extraordinary burst of creativity and change in the late 1960s,
with lots of people making new personal discoveries about life and
consciousness. I got caught up and touched by that whole spontaneous movement
and High Street is an analogy of some of the realisations I had about both
human society and personal experience.
B6:  The Dream: This
was another solo song I wrote about personal longing and love. It was a
favourite of my friend the guitarist Davy Graham, who did an alternative
arrangement of it and sang it at his own gigs. I wish I had a recording of him
singing it.
What happened after
the LP was out? Did you do any promo tour or how was the distribution organized
(if there was any)?
We were on Sounds Of The Seventies for BBC Radio plus
we did the gig at The 100 Club, and we went to a festival once but never
played, for some reason. Plus I remember playing at Wavendon, Cleo Laine and
Johnny Dankworth’s venue. Cleo was so encouraging and supportive and gave me a
beautiful plant as a gift. They were very hospitable. But apparently we got a
poor album review in NME (New Musical Express) and the LP never took off. I can
imagine that Vic Keary’s skill for distribution was not great. His talents lay
in recording and fostering artists, not in the sales and promotional side of
the label. So it all just melted away.

With whom did you
share stages, if any? I bet you have many interesting stories that happened and
we would be delighted to hear one or two.
Personally, I was rather insular. I think Kesh and
Clem had lots more anecdotes to tell, as they played with so many other famous
musicians. But, as a solo artist, I have shared stages with some great people.
I recall supporting Terry Reid and his trio for a couple of gigs. Soko
Richardson, the drummer who was touring with Terry, who used to be Ike Turner’s
drummer, asked me to keep his big gold ring safe while he was on stage. He
later gave me the ring as a present with the proviso that if I ever met Ike
Turner I was not to wear the ring, as Ike had given it to Soko as a special
gift. I still treasure the ring. I remember meeting Ray Charles backstage, one
time, but can’t recall why or when. I shared a stage with the blues singer
George Melly, too. He didn’t realise I was also playing and made a derogatory
remark when I ate a sandwich put out for the artistes! Silly man – I was one of
the artistes! You have to laugh! In fact, that seems to have been a bit of the
theme: I was playing at a big festival and the girlfriend of a famous musician
verbally attacked me for eating a sandwich in the hospitality caravan. I soon
put her right, ha ha! Another time I played on the same stage as Fairport
Convention, and also The Enid, with whom I shared several gigs at their
invitation, including The Marquee when there was a record audience of 997
people all going wild. I used to sing a song called Everyone Knows Where A
Dog’s Nose Goes (!). I would ask the audience to bark (choose your breed!) in
the chorus line. Getting 997 people to STOP barking was difficult, to say the
least, but great fun!
May I ask if you
used any hallucinogens to get inspired?
I think one member of Magic Carpet used to smoke
quite a bit, and the other two liked a good whisky, but no, I never really
liked smoking hash or doing any of that stuff. It was only after I left the
band that I mildly experimented a few times. A blind American sculptor had
insisted on giving me some LSD, which I’d kept in the fridge for years – until
the day that Graham Hine from Brett Marvin and The Thunderbolts found out I had
it. The next morning a group of us all took a quarter of the dose and had a
blissful time up at Alexandra Palace in London. But that was a year or so after
Magic Carpet split up.
What would you say
the song writing process is like?
I was doing quite a lot of yoga and meditation in my
early twenties and often a song would come out of that – or at least the lyrics
would float into my head during that experience. After which I would play
around on the guitar until I found a tune that was satisfying emotionally. Just
being out and about and alive would also trigger lyrics as a response to varied
experiences.
What happened to
the band? Clem was active and he recorded some ‘library’ sitar records and also
recorded another LP while in the group called Sagram if I’m not wrong? And
there was another album from 1996, but I never heard it. Can you tell us a bit
more about it?
In addition to his library recordings, Clem also
made an album called Mirror Image released by EMI (reissued on Magic Carpet
Records). One side is a long improvisation with excellent musicians and the
other side is a classical raga with Keshev Sathe playing tabla.  Plus he was part of a band called Akasa with
the singer Sophie Haq. He has also done quite a lot of teaching and
performances which continue to this day.
We met up again in the 1990s and recorded and released the
album Once Moor, subtitle Magic Carpet 2 (Magic Carpet Records) on CD and heavy
weight vinyl, but this time with different tabla players, as Kesh had retired.
In the 1990s I also released a recording I had made in 1974, simple songs with
guitar accompaniment entitled Love and the Maiden. Plus I released Alisha
Through the Looking Glass in the early 1990s also on CD and heavy-weight vinyl,
a mix of folk and jazz oriented songs with some great accompanying musicians,
including Chris Haig on fiddle and mandolin, Ray Warleigh on sax, Alan Dunn on
accordion, Mamadi Kamara on drums and Bernard O’Neill on bass. Latterly I
released an ‘official bootleg’ called Alisha’s Cellar, with lots of my songs
self accompanied on guitar and Appalachian dulcimer.
In 2008 I met Garry (Gaz) Cobain who asked if I’d license
the track The Phoenix for a compilation called A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble
Exploding In Your Mind, which Noel Gallagher of Oasis later voted his favourite
CD of the year. I was invited by Garry Cobain to tour with The Amorphous
Androgynous, the live counterpart of Future Sound Of London. We did a few
seriously big gigs such as the Creation Of Peace festival in Kazan to 200,000
people, plus performances in Moscow, Kiev, The Green Man festival, Electric
Picnic (Ireland), and finally the HMV Forum supporting Kasabian. The band Oasis
commissioned The Amorphous Androgynous to do a remix of their hit single
Falling Down and I was invited to sing lead vocals –
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79tb1qlHDb0. I also sang lead vocals on The
Amorphous Androgynous ‘Let It Be’ title track for Mojo magazine’s commemorative
limited edition album of the same name.
So in the early 90s
you released two solo albums and you were also part of the project called Many
Bright Things, which was a very interesting one, that released three albums and
produced some amazing long jams. Tell us more about this and how did all the
members came together. It seems to me, that the band consisted of some people
like Stan Denski and Paul Major, who are known collectors of psych and this was
an opportunity to do something on your own as a tribute to music they
love…There was also Jello Biafra and Nick Salamon, who were both in great
bands…
Pete Brown, who wrote the lyrics for the band the
Cream is a neighbour of mine and one day I thought for a joke I would write a spoof
song in his psychedelic style. The result was Silver Witch, but it ended up not
being a joke at all. I found there was a lot of complex imagery in the lyrics –
my sub conscious teaching me a little lesson. I recorded it at home on my
Alesis ADAT, then mixed down on to 2 track and sent it to Stan Denski. He gave
the tape to Frank Defina who played beautiful mandolin on the track. It’s
atypical on the album, as a lot of the other tracks are lush improvised mainly
instrumental takes. It’s a very nice album and a great idea of Stan’s.
What are you doing
these days?
I’ve been writing some songs and poetry, plus I had
a novel published earlier this year called Falling Upwards. I did a little gig
a few weeks back which went really well, in a small acoustic venue in London –
I want to get back into that more. And Garry Cobain of Future Sound Of London
came round last week and we had a great time with me trying out vocals on some
new tracks he’ll be experimenting with, part of FSOL Cartel series of psychsploitation.
I wrote some lyrics and melody that I hope will fit. Plus I’ve started drawing
again . . .

Thank you for
taking your time. Would you like to send a message to Psychedelic Baby readers
and to your fans across the globe?
I’d just like to say a warm thank you to all the
people who appreciate the music. I’m always very touched by that, especially
considering the Magic Carpet album nearly disappeared without trace. Best
wishes to all and a big thank you!

Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2014
© Copyright http://psychedelicbaby.blogspot.com/2014
One Comment
  1. Anonymous

    It's a brilliant I want album and clearly a hidden gem from the past. Alisha,s voice is wonderful.

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