I didn’t quite know what to make of Akal Singh the first time I met him.

He had a friendly smile, big guileless green eyes, a beard and turban, and – most immediately relevant – was holding a deck of standard Bicycle playing cards.

“Wanna see a trick?” he said.

He held out the deck of cards and began thumbing through them to fan them out, asking me to touch one. I did. Without looking at it, he thumbed the card up to show it to me – it was the Queen of Spades – then poked it back into the deck, shuffled and told me that he would proceed to pop the card out. With one fluid motion, he sent a single card sailing into the air, plucked it down and placed it on top of the deck.

“And there it is,” he said, peeking at the card. “Was your card red?”

“Uh, no.”

“Aw, sh–. It’s not the Seven of Hearts?” He turned the errant card over to confirm with me that it was, indeed, not my card. “Well, it should be around here somewhere, let’s see … .” Fumbling. “Ah, here we go, if we look again …” He turned the same top card over. The Queen of Spades.

You can’t help but clap enthusiastically when you’re standing around with some random dude and he successfully performs a magic trick out of nowhere.

It turned out, though, that Oakland-based magician Akal Singh actually does this professionally; in fact, speaking of “out of nowhere,” he’s an expert in making things disappear and appear out of nowhere.

To be precise, he performs close-up magic and sleight of hand (also known as prestidigitation, literally translated as “quick fingers,” or legerdemain, “light hands”). Sleight of hand is the dexterous manipulation of everyday objects like cards and coins to make them disappear, reappear in different places, change hands and generally do what seems physically impossible. An age-old example of sleight of hand is the ol’ coin behind the ear trick. Or maybe you’ve seen a magician make a ball disappear and change places underneath a row of upside-down cups.

This kind of magic, as compared to the kind that relies on rigged magical apparatuses, uses only the most basic of props at its foundation. The “magic” is not in the objects themselves, but instead in the way the magician yields them and in the way the magician is able to interact with the viewer. Thus sleight of hand techniques are among the oldest of tools at an illusionist’s disposal.

The profession of “magician” or “illusionist” first emerged in the 18th century and was especially popularized by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a Frenchman who took magic out of the streets and onto the stage, performing stage magic in a Parisian theater throughout the 1840s. (Harry Houdini took his own stage name from Robert-Houdin.) Illusory techniques developed from there, as magicians’ ability to control and rig stages and props made it possible to perform more elaborate forms of illusion.

As a foundational technique, though, throughout its existence sleight of hand has allowed for not only illusion, but all manner of nefarious activities like pickpocketing, cheating at gambling, or convincing spiritual populations that one has great powers. As such, sleight of hand has tended to carry a rather negative connotation – something that Singh said he has no interest in furthering.

“The role of good magic is to leave the person thinking, ‘That can’t be done,’ not ‘I’m not quite sure how he did that,’” Singh said. “But I don’t actually believe in magic. I always admit that it’s just tricks.

“If you can present something that’s engaging and entertaining and have the viewer witness something that they know is impossible, but where every avenue that their brain goes to try to figure it out is a dead end … then the mind sort of just acquiesces to the wonder. If you’re that kind of person. Some people can’t – and those people usually become magicians.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Singh grew up in Nashville, Tenn., and first became interested in magic in high school – an interest that was admittedly a bit out of step with the mainstream.

“We were always kind of weird, my friends and me,” Singh remembered. “I hung out with the punks and the nerds. We were vegetarians at, like, 13, and running Food Not Bombs as kids.”

Singh had a friend whose uncle was an amateur magician. Each week his friend would come to school with a new magic trick that would blow Singh’s mind – and then the following week, the friend would show a new trick and then reveal the secret of how he had done the previous week’s trick. On his friend’s recommendation, Singh got his hands on J.B. Bobo’s classic book “Modern Coin Magic” (subtitled “116 Coin Sleights and 236 Coin Tricks with 510 Illustrations”) and began studying coin sleights, practicing with coins for the rest of high school and sitting in class with coins palmed in his hand.

As a learner, Singh seems to have an insatiable and perpetually curious mind; he studied different world religions in college, intensively practiced meditation in India and New York, devoted himself to Sikhism, spent two years independently learning about economics out of books, went to law school in Tennessee and moved to the Bay Area to study capoeira at the Capoeira Arts school in Berkeley. The transition to performing magic, rather than practicing it as a hobby, offered him a new challenge. As a performing magician, one also needs to master a performance persona and take into account the audience’s point of view, not simply master the techniques.

“Magic, to me, exists only in the spectator’s mind,” Singh said. “It’s the experience that I’m facilitating – that’s the magic, and that’s what I think is beautiful. So the shift from being a hobbyist to performer was learning how that experience arises and what kinds of things are mesmerizing to people.”

He gave an example: A magician could vanish a ball in his hand by opening his hand and showing that it’s gone. Or, alternatively, he could put a handkerchief over his hand, stick a ball inside of the handkerchief, close his hand over it and then very quickly whisk away the handkerchief and show that the ball is gone. Singh says that the second one looks more amazing and achieves a greater sense of tension in the magic, though it’s not technically any harder than the first.

Currently Singh performs magic at various events-for-hire, at Oakland Art Murmur/First Fridays, and at North Beach Pizza in Berkeley (1598 University Ave., Berkeley) every Wednesday evening from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

To continue perfecting his craft, he does everything from videotaping himself performing magic so that he can see what it looks like from the audience’s perspective, to watching cashiers handing back change to study natural hand movements, to practicing emoting with just his eyes by wearing a paper bag with eyeholes cut out of it. After all, in the business of magic and illusion, there are a lot of things to manage with little room for mistakes.

“There are a lot of realities going on,” Singh explained. “There’smy reality, which is just the technical details of what’s actually happening, like where the coin or the card is; there’s the reality I’m portraying, which is only in my intention; and there’s yourreality. I have to be the steward of this magical experience, the total master of the reality I’m trying to portray.

“That’s what I have to really be taking care of. And before that, I have to be a total master of my technique so that that’s just the background of what it is that I’m doing. Ultimately I want to touch people’s innate appreciation for feeling humbled by reality.”

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For more information or to contact Akal Singh, visit his website at www.akalsingh.com.

 

Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

 

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