He’s one of Australia’s most acclaimed, best-selling and beloved performers, recording more than 30 albums, selling more than 20 million records worldwide and collecting over 100 gold and platinum records over a glittering 60 year career.
Born Kandiah Kamalesvaran 13 November 1934, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya, he arrived in Adelaide in April 1953 before getting his big break in 1958.
Yet despite his international success, it’s always seemed as if Kamahl was never quite respected in his own country as he was around the world.
‘I never thought of myself as Sri Lankan or Malaysian or anything like that,’ he says of his childhood during the Second World War, seeing fighters flying overhead and bombs exploding, and watching Japanese troops marching past. He recalls meeting a Japanese officer approaching him and putting his hand on his hips. ‘I saw a flash of silver. I thought he was going to take his sword out. It was a bar of chocolate. I grabbed it and ran all the way home,’ he laughs.
His father, Mayilvaganam, was a Chief Clerk on the Malayan Railways, and the principal of Sangeetha Abivirthi Sabha, a classical Hindu fine arts school. ‘He had a very raspy voice, but he was very emotional when he sang those old hymns,’ his son remembers.
This world-famous crooner protests that, unlike his father and sister, who also achieved renown in Kuala Lumpur writing classical Carnatic hymns, he didn’t have any particular musical gifts. At the school, ‘I was the only boy among 50 girls. But I don’t think I learned anything.’
After being fostered to his maternal aunt and uncle (a common tradition among extended Indian families), he was given ‘Hobson’s choice’ to go abroad to the US, UK or Australia to study.
At the time, he told the ABC’s Talking Heads program in 2005, ‘I was worried about America because of the way they were treating the negroes. I thought Australia seemed without any form of prejudice at that time. Little did I know when I came here that the Aborigines were regarded as sub-human.’
Arriving in Adelaide in 1953, with not enough warm clothes, alone and far from home, and one of only a few Asian students at King’s College (now Pembroke College) brought a stark realisation.
‘I suddenly became aware of my own “blackness”, something I’d never felt back in Malaysia. But here, there were instances where I’d shake someone’s hand and they’d surreptitiously wipe it against their trousers, thinking I had dirtied it..’
He recalls children throwing stones at him, and being nicknamed Persil, after the white soap.
‘In Adelaide, I was quite isolated,’ he says. ‘I was on my own in a boarding house. I don’t know if any of my other fellow Malaysian students felt the way I did.’
Having thrown himself into sport, representing his school and South Australia in cricket, hockey and badminton, he admits he ‘did bugger all’ studying, resulting in him being regularly threatened with deportation.
Despite this, his life has been marked by great kindness, and what he calls serendipity (ironically, derived from Sri Lanka’s medieval name). As he points out, ‘I was extremely lucky to be nurtured in this country in spite of the hostile, racist element. There were enough people who accepted me.’
This included an Immigration officer who kept ‘misplacing’ deportation files, allowing him to stay, or the University of Adelaide’s registrar enrolling him at the prestigious Elder Conservatorium of Music.
At the home of an Australian couple, the Markhams, who’d host international students for dinner and singalongs, he’d sit in the corner, wishing he had the courage to get up and sing, despite his father impressing on him that Indian music was ‘God’s music’, and finding Western music ‘dissonant.’ But after seeing the applause his classmates got, he forced himself to listen to the radio.
‘I had this insatiable need and desire to want applause in any form,’ he says.
One song particularly spoke to him: Nat King Cole’s 1948 hit Nature Boy.
‘It took me some months to learn Nature Boy and volunteer to sing it and I remember Gladys is asking me, “What is it you want to do?”
‘I said, “I want to sing.”
‘She said, “Can you sing?”
‘I said, “I don’t know. I’m going to try.” What am I supposed to do? I said, “Just turn the lights off when I start, so that gives me a bit of confidence.”
‘And at the end of it, somebody said, “Wow, that sounded a little bit like Nat King Cole!” That was the only encouragement I needed. It was like lighting a wick to a bomb! I just went off. I listened to Nat King Cole morning, noon and night.’
You can’t help but still see that lonely little boy suddenly aware of his alienness, his blackness:
There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he
When he first returned home, his mother asked him to sing for her. ‘I sang something, and she screwed her face up and said, “Son, doesn’t it hurt your throat to make noises like that?”
Given their disdain for Western music, his parents were ‘obviously disappointed,’ by his new-found career. ‘But they adjusted their attitude once I got my first gold record.’
Like the Nature Boy he resembles, Kamahl is full of fantastic stories about the hundreds of celebrities, world leaders and royalty he’s met, from the British and Dutch royal families, Presidents George H. Bush and Barack Obama, Sammy Davis Junior and Sir Donald Bradman, Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte and more, including the man behind his big break.
In December 1958, he was singing at the Lido Club when a beautiful woman invited him to a party in the Adelaide Hills. Her husband asked him to sing, and as he sang the last note, pressed a ten-pound note into his hand. ‘It’s like $170 in today’s value, and I would have been lucky to get $2 of today’s money in those days,’ Kamahl recalls.
That man was media baron Rupert Murdoch, who scheduled him to appear on NWS-9’s first broadcast and booked him for a six week season at Sydney’s Hotel Australia, without his knowledge. ‘I thought I’d be a failure,’ Kamahl says.
‘But it was just unbelievable. And at the end of it, when I said goodbye and thanks to Rupert and his then-wife Pat, he said, “Where do you think you’re going?” I said, “To Adelaide, of course. He said, “No, you’re not. You’re going to stay here. You’ll be a big star.”
‘And at the end of it, I went to thank him and his then-wife Pat for their irrational, generosity and, and I said, goodbye and Rupert said, “Where do you think you’re going?” I said, “To Adelaide, of course. He said, “No, you’re not. You’re going to stay here. You’ll be a big star.”’ He ended up living with them for three years.
Despite the incredible fondness he’s regarded by the public (when we walk around his neighbourhood, young and old call out “Kamahl!”, asking for selfies), and his many achievements and successes, he’s regularly been told he has no talent: from his first manager, who told him his other clients had more in their little fingers than him, to the then-Secretary of the Musicians’ Union of Australia, who said he had none at all.
With no manager and little support, he was often driven to marketing his work himself, writing to radio and television stations, and booking himself into venues. In 1973, after being abandoned by his manager, he wrote to 2CH and the Opera House, proposing a concert. Despite disinterest by his record label, he arranged for it to be recorded, and the show not only held long-standing box office records but the accompanying album won Easy Listening Album of the Year at that year’s ARIA awards. He famously sold 1970’s Peace on Earth in BP service stations after his record company refused to distribute it. It went on to sell 250,000 copies.
Yet while his first big hit, 1975’s conservation paean The Elephant Song, was number one for seven weeks in the Netherlands and across Europe, and his eponymous 1978 album hit number one in New Zealand (the only place to displace The Bee Gees’ platinum-selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack), he discovered on the very night he stepped onto the Palladium’s stage in 1975, that he had a million-dollar tax debt.
‘Financially, I’m hopeless,’ he confesses. ‘I earn a hundred and I spend a hundred and twenty. So, I’m a mess as far as financial things [are concerned]. That would be my [biggest] regret. I wish I could have been taught how to look after the finances. In other words, if you earn ten dollars, it’s not all yours. There’s got to be tax, and there’s this, and there’s that, and you live within your means. I bought a damn Rolls-Royce in 1977 when I couldn’t afford it…’
Part of the reason he did so was due to his belief that ‘the world is 90 per cent perception. There’s what’s true, and what’s real, and what’s perceived, and you can’t control perception. I bought the Rolls so people, especially fellow Asians, would see how successful I was, and think “If Kamahl can buy one, so can I”.’
But that perception is also reflected the racism he’s experienced, whether on the streets of Adelaide or on Australia’s then-top-rating show, Hey Hey It’s Saturday, in which he was repeatedly racially abused and humiliated, including being hit in the face with a white powder puff, only a few days before he was due to perform at Carnegie Hall.by the racist treatment he received on Australia’s then top-rating and longest-running television show, Hey Hey It’s Saturday, which the nation was reminded of after show’s producer and host, Daryl Somers, complained that ‘you probably could not get away with half the stuff you could on Hey Hey now because of the political correctness and the cancel culture.’ In response, editor John Patterson posted a clip on Twitter of every time Kamahl was racially abused on the show — most infamously, when he was hit in the face with a white powder puff, a week before he was due to appear at Carnegie Hall.
That racism has been deeply internalized. Even at the moment he describes as ‘the pinnacle of my career’, being approached by Prince Harry after performing at the 2018 Invictus Games, he suddenly was struck by the thought that ‘it would not do for the public to see an English prince to embrace a black man. So, I just stuck out my hand for a handshake.’
Why would he think that? ‘I am what I am, you know, made up of insecurities and an inferiority complex and all that… Cecil Rhodes, who founded the Rhodes Scholarship, once said, “You British have won the first prize in the lottery of life.” And by that measure, I didn’t even have a ticket. I felt I had no chance and I didn’t belong here. That’s how it is.’
As a result, he was afraid of a lot of things that he now says he shouldn’t have been afraid of. ‘Somewhere along the way I developed some audacity and dared to do things that people would laugh at. I was prepared for people to laugh at me.’
For him, though, audacity is exactly what people of colour need. ‘When I read Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity Of Hope, I knew a white man would never write a book with that title because hope is a white man’s prerogative.’
Still, why did he keep returning to Australia when he was so much more celebrated overseas? ‘Australia is my home,’ he says. ‘I never wanted to live anywhere else.’
When I ask him what he thinks Australia is to him, he’s at first inarticulate, before launching into a recitation of the words of his 1988 song, What Is Australia To Me?:
It’s the house that I live in, my neighbours down the street, the proud, and smiling faces of the people that I meet.
The children of the playground and Christmas and the sun, the g’day and the handshake, that’s Australia to me.
The town I live in, the friends that I have found, the people who just came here from nations all around.
Words of Banjo Paterson, McCullen, Henry Lawson, the style of Donald Bradman, De Castella and Dame Joan.
This land I live in, the goodness everywhere, a place of wealth and beauty, with enough for all to share. Yes I love the sunburnt country.
So vital, young and free, with a promise for tomorrow, that’s Australia to me.
It’s adapted from Robeson’s 1960 song, The House I Live In, itself taken from Earl Robinson’s 1947 album Songs for Political Action. Yet it’s also a reminder of what he calls ‘my greatest ever humiliation.’
‘I’m no songwriter,’ he acknowledges, ‘but I do have ideas.’ Considering himself a “communicator” rather than a singer, the words are more important than the melody, just as silence is greater than words.
Adapting Robeson’s song, he sent it to the Bicentennial Council, responsible for organising celebrations for the 200th anniversary of colonisation. ‘I was so excited,’ he recalls. ‘And very soon afterwards, I got a note saying “We don’t need that “lousy parody” of What Is Australia To Me?” The devastation of that took me months to get over.’
But it also resulted in one of his most treasured friendships, with Australian cricket legend Sir Donald Bradman (who was featured in the song), and leading to a correspondence of over 60 letters over the years, which he counts among his most treasured possessions.
He seems to have done everything to belong, including truncating his name from Kamalesvaran to Kamal, then changing it to Kamahl after repeatedly being introduced as “Camel.” And when he stepped onto the stage for his record-breaking Opera House run, he remarked to the audience that ‘I may be black, but my soul is white.’ It didn’t go down well, he says.
Still, after having tweeted recently how he wanted to belong to Australia, someone replied “You are Australian”, which greatly touched him, even as he acknowledges he’s between two continents and cultures.
But despite having sung Carnatic music to himself when he felt especially homesick at boarding school, Kamahl confesses that, after nearly 68 years, he’s forgotten how to speak his mother tongue. Yet, he hopes to record a Tamil song one day, and when he sings it to me — the tragic Tamil superstar M. K. Thayagaraja Bhagavathar’s 1941 hit Bhoomiyul Maanida — it brings me to tears.
How did he go from singing in the dark in a suburban home on McGill Road to Carnegie Hall? ‘It’s persistence, the audacity of hope and — uh, I don’t know. Maybe I wanted some sort of recognition that I was worthy of something, but looking back, every little step amounted to something… I kept trying. I mean, I did climb mountains that sometimes were too steep to climb, but I got to the peak in the end, and the view was magnificent.’
What advice does he have for young artists of colour following in his footsteps?
‘I don’t know if anybody wants to follow in my footsteps,’ he demurs. ‘Meaning that, if anybody finds in the situation that I was in like 60 or years ago — if they feel discriminated against and they can’t succeed… I’d say, first of all, be honest to yourself, and find if you have anything that you believe in so strongly that you would give your life for it and pursue that dream, however impossible it may seem. And if you’re that determined, that feeling will permeate through your soul and it will be evident to anybody, and I’m sure you’ll find a way one way or another.
‘Whatever career you choose, whether it’s music or anything else, you should be totally committed to what you want to do. And for me, it was an insatiable desire for acceptance, translated into communicating one way or another.’
What does he think his legacy is, or might be? ‘I have no say in it whatsoever! But I think, at the end of the day, my contribution to this country is to the fellow Asians who came here. I occasionally meet people who say, “You know, I’m so glad to meet you because my child is going to marry an Asian, as if to say that, now I’ve done something, maybe their future in-laws or offspring will do the same or better.’
But ultimately, he reflects, echoing the song that started him on his fantastic, fraught, serendipitous career, ‘the greatest thing you ever learn is to love and be loved in return.’
This interview with Kamahl by Sunil Badami was conducted on the unceded lands of the Darug Nation.
First published in The Australian on 11 November, 2021. Article commissioned by Diversity Arts Australia for the Pacesetters Creative Archives project, which was funded through Create NSW.