This story is based on an interview I conducted with Kamahl in March 2009, hitherto untold. It’s been a long time coming. I hope it puts his life, his perspective and the events of recent weeks into greater context.
Kandiah Kamalesvaran was seven years old when the Imperial Japanese Army completed their conquest of Malaysia in February 1942, after the surrender of Allied forces in Singapore.
By the time he was eight, he’d seen heads on pikes, and other things no child should ever see. Everywhere, there was a Japanese soldier astride a black horse, a sword on his hip.
To get out of harm’s way, his parents pulled their growing family out of the heaving Kuala Lumpur metropolis to the countryside. They owned a cow, and one day young Kamal took it out for a walk and a feed.
On the way home, he encountered a Japanese soldier on horseback. The soldier beckoned him, and put his hand to his hip. Kamal closed his eyes, anticipating that his head was about to be removed from his body.
After a few seconds, realising it was still attached, he opened them again, and saw a flash of silver. But it wasn’t a sword that the soldier was brandishing in front of his nose. It was the wrapping of a bar of chocolate.
Kamal was so frightened that he ran all the way home, forgetting the cow.
THE ABOVE anecdote tells you two things about Kamal, his first Tamil-Hindu name, later to be known mononymously as Kamahl (he added the “H” later to avoid the persistent mispronunciation of his name as “Camel”, after coming to Australia as a student in 1953).
First, he is a man whose life has been blessed mostly by good fortune. Second, he has a tendency to look for the good in others, even in the most squalid circumstances. This means he is not given to complaining.
This trait could be seen recently, when John Patterson (formerly the guitarist with Brisbane indie-rock band the Grates) posted a montage of clips from the long-running variety show Hey Hey It’s Saturday on Twitter, compiling the many occasions on which the easy-listening legend, now 86, was subjected to racist humiliation on the program.
Patterson, who had watched Hey Hey regularly growing up, had subscribed to host Daryl Somers’ YouTube channel to compile the segments, and waited to pick his moment: the announcement that Somers was returning to television to host Channel 7’s Dancing With The Stars series.
But after Somers complained that the show would be “cancelled” today (in response to a leading question from a Daily Telegraph reporter – forgetting that it had already been cancelled twice, first in 1999, and again after a short-lived reboot in 2010), Kamahl was gracious when approached for a response.
He bore Somers no ill will, refusing to blame him personally for any of the incidents. In the nastiest of these, he was hit in the face with a white powder puff while performing. “You’re a real white man now, Kamahl,” said Somers’ off-camera sidekick, John Blackman.
Kamahl was shocked and hurt, but accepted these ritualised degradations as the price of remaining in the public eye at the time. He readily agreed he had benefited from the publicity his appearances on the show afforded him.
But maintaining his composure does not mean Kamahl did not suffer. The thing that stung him most was that, while he remained celebrated overseas, he was being treated as a figure of fun in his own country. The week after the powder-puff incident, he played to a sold-out Carnegie Hall in New York, where he was introduced by comedy legend Bob Hope.
THE YOUNG KAMAHL could not have imagined he would scale such heights.
He describes his Malaysian upbringing as “middle of the road”. By his own account, he was an average student, barely scraping through high school. “Scholastically, I achieved zilch,” he says.
An uncle thought it would be a good thing for Kamahl to continue his studies overseas, and he had friends in Australia, especially Adelaide. “Back then, I would do anything to get out of Malaysia,” he says. “I felt I was a failure. I had no idea what I was going to do.”
This, combined with the racism he encountered in Australia, left Kamahl with overwhelming feelings of insecurity. “I was terrified of rejection. Occasionally I would shake hands with a stranger, and they would check their palms to make sure it wasn’t dirty.”
Yet he had one aim: “To stay here as long as possible.” He drifted through classes and courses at the University of Adelaide, shifting from architecture to arts. The lack of urgency with which he approached his studies would soon bring him to the attention of the immigration department.
The only obvious talent he had was for cricket, famously taking a hat-trick as an off-spinner for Kensington Cricket Club in 1955 with the first three balls of the season, finishing with figures of 7/55.
In the dressing rooms, he was congratulated by “this smallish man with a smallish voice, whom I was later told was Sir Donald Bradman … I was dumbfounded. I thought Bradman was 6’6” with a deep baritone, that’s how you imagine your heroes.” Kamahl would forge a deep friendship and maintain a long correspondence with Bradman decades later.
But cricket was not to be Kamahl’s path, either.
Despite his fear of rejection, and his initial rejection of western music – “to me it was very dissonant and irritating” – he began to sing, for the same reason other shy, lonely and insecure young men are compelled to get on stage: to meet girls.
“I had this problem, how do I go out with a girl, for fear that she’s going to think that I was going to be dirty, and in more ways than one,” he says. “I tried every which way, in fact, almost to the point of bribing a friend of mine, to find me a date.
“And my first date, I was supposed to meet this girl at seven, and she never turned up. I came to the conclusion the reason we missed each other was because she couldn’t see me standing in the shadows.”
Kamahl began to teach himself to sing in the shadows, too: on the university oval at King’s College (now Pembroke) – at night, with a blanket over his head, “because singing scales is terrible to listen to, and I didn’t want anyone to hear me singing. I was very self-conscious.”
Music would eventually propel him out of the shadows, and into the spotlight. He found comfort in the voice of Nat King Cole, and he began paying more attention to lyrics and diction. His favourite was Nature Boy, a song that may have been written for Kamahl himself:
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…
IN 1958, fortune smiled on Kamahl again while singing at a nightclub called the Lido. After his set, he was approached by a beautiful young flight attendant by the name of Patricia, who invited him to come and sit at her table.
Later, around midnight, she invited him to come with her and her husband to another party for News Ltd, where he sang again, to great enthusiasm. This time her husband, who had earlier paid little attention, came rushing up and pressed a £10 note into his hand – around $350-$400 in today’s money.
It was a 27-year-old Rupert Murdoch, then an emerging media baron whose main asset at the time was Adelaide tabloid The News. On 5 September 1959, the date of television’s debut in Adelaide, Kamahl appeared on Adelaide Tonight, on the Murdoch-owned channel NWS-9.
Kamahl also met his idol, Nat King Cole, around this time. “It was like meeting God, so to speak. But we met ever so briefly. He said, what do you do, and I said, I’m a student, but I want to sing, and before he could say Jack Robinson, I started singing Nature Boy to him.
“You should have seen his face. And all he could say was, do you write? And I thought, that’s kind of insulting – I’ve just sung for you, why are you asking if I write? But he was ahead of his time maybe, anticipating the Beatles and everybody else.”
Murdoch, meanwhile, would become Kamahl’s biggest supporter and patron. In an act of generosity that might appear ironic today, the young mogul helped ward off immigration authorities who were looking to deport Kamahl, persuading him to come to Sydney.
“Rupert said to me, Adelaide’s too small for you, come to Sydney. Of course, I was terrified – the same insecurity thing – and he would have none of it,” Kamahl says. Murdoch booked him a six-week engagement at the historic Australia Hotel in Castlereagh Street.
Every Friday and Saturday, Patricia and Rupert took their seats in the front row of the Monarch Room, making small talk with Kamahl between songs and sets. On the final Saturday, as he prepared to leave, Kamahl thanked them for their hospitality and support.
“Rupert said, where do you think you’re going? And I said, I’m going back to Adelaide, and he said, no you’re not, you’re going to stay here. I said, where will I stay? He said, stay with us.” Kamahl lived with the Murdochs in Darling Point for the next 18 months.
Kamahl’s next brush with fame was to prove arguably more influential than his meeting with Cole. It was the great baritone singer and radical civil rights activist Paul Robeson, on his first Australian tour in October 1960. One of Robeson’s last and most famous performances was to workers on the construction site of the future Sydney Opera House.
Kamahl was disturbed by Robeson at first. “The first time I heard Robeson it sounded like a cow mooing, compared to Nat King Cole, which was a soft sound you could hardly hear … What you hear on record is a pale imitation of what he sounded like.”
Not many years earlier, the Australian government had stopped Robeson from entering the country on account of his allegedly un-American activities during the McCarthy era. Now, he sang at suburban halls. “I remember feeling the vibrations through the floorboards on the stage, hearing him. He was a very big man, with a great mind.”
Kamahl was still beset by feelings of inadequacy. “The inferiority complex is a feeling that, as a Black, you think, regardless of your achievements, you’d never be considered equal. That whatever you do, you’re secondary, because you’re Black.”
Robeson, however, years before James Brown, was saying it loud: he was Black and proud. In Australia, he took up the cause of Indigenous people, declaring “there’s no such thing as a backward human being, only a society which says they are backward”.
“It was Robeson who really paved the way for the likes of Martin Luther King to do what he did, or what they did,” Kamahl says. “Robeson, by far, was a more important figure in desegregating America, or helping to desegregate America.
“Unfortunately, in spite of his intellect, he was naive enough to believe that the Russians were angels; he couldn’t see that the Russians were doing worse things than the Americans. He was myopic in some respects, he had the blinkers on.
“But in 1995, when somebody wrote a biography about me, I helped launch it at the Opera House, and I was trying to describe Paul Robeson’s impact on me. I said he had a voice like the earth would have, if the earth could sing. He was like a mountain roaring.”
KAMAHL WAS no firebrand like Robeson. Far from a mountain roaring, his baritone was mellifluous and smooth-grained. This would work both for and against him. To say “the kind of music I was doing was not at the forefront of the pop world” is an understatement.
As the 1960s progressed, his star rose, but he was a man out of time, if not behind them: a slightly ersatz crooner; Australia’s equivalent to Engelbert Humperdinck. His first album, released in 1967 (when he was finally granted citizenship) was called A Voice To Remember.
His first Australian hit, the country-tinged Sounds Of Goodbye, came in 1969. It reached No. 19 – still his highest-charting single in his own country. Only two other songs ever placed inside the top 40 – the last of them, 100 Children (including its B-side, Danny Boy) a full 50 years ago.
Kamahl, though, was mostly not a singles artist – and his music carried far beyond these shores. His sole No. 1 came in 1975 with The Elephant Song, which topped the charts in the Netherlands and Belgium.
The song was a near-novelty: a plea from an elephant to a hunter, sung with such earnestness it verged on parody. It also soundtracked a World Wildlife Fund documentary, in the nascent years of the environmental movement.
It showcased Kamahl’s real talent, the most valuable one an entertainer can possess: a completely unforced ability to connect with people. In The Elephant Song, there is a parlando section, in which Kamahl stops singing and speaks directly to his audience:
Listen, please listen, said the elephant
If we want the world we know to stay alive
Then man and beast, we must work together
And together, we will survive
Kamahl was sincere, but he leavened such doggerel with a self-aware twinkle of humour. “If talent alone was a prerequisite for success, I would never have made it, because there are not enough stages in this world to accommodate all the talent,” he says. “It’s a combination of persistence, determination and an indefinable thing called luck.”
And as tragically unhip as Kamahl was, he was ahead of his time in other ways. His fourth album, a Christmas special called Peace On Earth (1970), was accompanied by an aggressive, innovative marketing campaign.
Throughout a decade dominated by deadly serious singer-songwriters, glam rockers, disco and punk, Kamahl sold millions of albums with titles like Friend (1973), Save The Oceans (1976) and Smile (which charted above the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in 1979, at least in New Zealand).
Platinum and Gold sales awards piled up. He played prestigious venues including the London Palladium and Carnegie Hall. He mixed with presidents, prime ministers and other foreign dignitaries. A seashell-blue Rolls Royce was parked in his garage.
Perhaps more importantly, Kamahl had enjoyed good luck off stage as well as on, giving him an enviable emotional stability. In 1966, he married Sahodra, an Indian-Fijian. She bore him two children, Rajan (born in 1969) and Rani (1971). The partnership proved enduring, surviving the long absences and many temptations of an entertainer’s life.
BACK HOME, though – as the 1980s stretched out in a long, orgiastic round of self-congratulation, from the America’s Cup to the Bicentenary and beyond – Kamahl was being turned into a punchline, despite a Royal Command performance for Queen Elizabeth II at Brisbane’s Commonwealth Games in 1982.
His appearances on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, on which he was a regular and beloved (if frequently insulted) guest, were a double-edged sword, maintaining his visibility for the price of his pride, saved only by his willingness to take a joke – including racist jokes – at his own expense.
Perhaps, in hindsight, Kamahl was suffering from a mild case of relevance deprivation, the very same condition Daryl Somers now finds himself accused of. “I have an insatiable desire for approval and applause, and love in any form,” he admits. “And in show business, if people don’t see you on television, they think you’re dead.”
Kamahl was both a soft target and a lightning rod for the nation’s multicultural and racial anxieties. The same country that had wanted to deport him under its own White Australia policy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was now bringing two other national obsessions to bear on him.
One was the cultural cringe (the nationalistic urge to celebrate Kamahl’s success abroad). The second was the tall poppy syndrome – the contradictory urge to cut him down in public, lest he get too far ahead of himself.
It is a trait borne of a celebrated Australian tradition of egalitarianism, yet it is reserved most viciously for those who were never really considered “one of us” to begin with. The young Dawn Fraser (notwithstanding her much later flirtation with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation), Adam Goodes and Nick Kyrgios are others that come to mind.
Kamahl had a phrase which he used to defuse the worst incidents on Hey Hey. On a visit to New York in November 1977, he had been given a tape of a song written by Harry Middlebrooks. It was called What Would I Do Without My Music?
“It just blew me away. I literally had tears in my eyes. I played it again and again,” he says. But the more he listened, the more a line jarred with him. The song begins:
Sometimes I stumble home at night discouraged
Dragging my battered dreams behind
Wondering if the battle’s worth the fighting
And why so many people’s eyes are blind
It was the last line that did not sit well with Kamahl. “I thought kindness was more important,” he says. And so, when he recorded the song – without discussing the lyric with Middlebrooks – he found a more elegant phrase that expressed the same sentiment more plainly: “And why so many people are unkind”.
The rephrase “Why are people so unkind?” became, as he puts it himself, “the Unique Selling Proposition of Kamahl” – his brand – which he used to maintain his dignity in a defiled age. Today, the idea that kindness is the most important virtue has become a trite cliché.
Kamahl, however, has come to embody it. “The thing I have for my audiences is respect,” he says. “If you don’t have that, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t be there.”
IN THE END, he outlasted everyone.
In 1996, he narrated a run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. “I was afraid that I’d be a fool, you know. I mean, I’ve seen people do things that they shouldn’t have done, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. So I said, no thanks.”
Sahodra and his son Rajan helped convince him otherwise. “Just before going on stage, I was told not to expect them to cheer, because my part, as the narrator, I was a metaphor for the parents and everything that’s square, so not to worry if I didn’t get any reaction.
“So I walked out and there was absolute silence. Absolute silence! Until one guy said, ‘Hey Kamahl, my mother loves you,’ and the place broke up. And I had so much fun, and from then I did it for the next three years, off and on. Sometimes I can be a poor judge.”
By the turn of the millennium, a younger generation who had grown up with Kamahl – their perceptions of him often shaped by his appearances on Hey Hey, for better or worse – were beginning to view him in a different light.
He became a kind of kitsch icon, celebrated for the same quasi-ironic reasons as Daryl Braithwaite’s rendition of Horses. He performed at the Big Day Out in 2004, was a judge on The X-Factor in 2005, and when Hey Hey came calling in 2009 – inviting him back for the show’s brief reunion – he found, or perhaps invented, reasons to decline.
But the racism he experienced on the show and throughout his life, he pointed out, is part of the human condition. The son of Sri Lankan Tamils, who were defeated in that country’s long civil war in 2009, he says “what’s going on in Sri Lanka is genocide, and somehow the world is not doing too much about it”.
Fate is fickle. Fortune and time has continued to smile upon Kamahl. But instead of becoming entitled, it has given him perspective. “Somewhere along the way providence has been kind and generous,” he says. “Which takes you from A to B instead of getting shot at, you know.”
Or perhaps, for the strange, enchanted boy living under the Japanese occupation, offered a bar of chocolate, instead of losing your head.
…And then one day, a magic day, he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things,
Fools and kings,
This he said to me:
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love, and be loved in return.
First published on Patreon, 16 May 2021