17 January 2022
I recently had the opportunity to speak with iconic Australian performer Kamahl.
As a King’s old scholar Kamahl had received his latest copy of Pembroke News and he emailed me saying that he very much enjoys the opportunity to hear about what’s going on at his alma mater. I asked him what he was up to and he told me that he was still performing. Most notably he was interviewed in March 2021 by the Artistic Director of Opera Australia (podcast In conversations with Lyndon Terracini), which included a performance of O Isis und Osiris, an aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The last time Kamahl sang an operatic aria was in 1966 in the Sun Aria vocal competition for emerging opera singers. Dame Joan Sutherland was one of its earliest winners.
It didn’t take long before Kamahl was reminiscing fondly about his days at King’s, his university life and his accidental emergence as a performer.
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Arriving in Adelaide in the 1950s from Malaysia must have presented challenges for you as a young man; do you recall what it was like adjusting to your new environment?
Given it was my first overseas experience, everything was new. I wasn’t at all ready for the various challenges when I arrived in the middle of winter in 1953. Apart from anything else the weather was bitterly cold. It was colder than anything that I had ever encountered in my life. All that I had brought from Malaysia was in one single suitcase crammed with everything that I could fit in; unfortunately that did not include a much-needed overcoat. My new home was at a private boarding house called St Anton’s on Beulah Road overlooking Haslam Oval. King’s College was a short daily walk across the oval. In the early 1950s the White Australia Policy was still in effect, so naturally there were hardly any people of colour in the community except for the overseas students. Privately I was haunted by the perception that I was second-rate and wouldn’t amount to anything from my earlier experiences in life. However, I did my best to wear a happy face.
Also I had read about Cecil Rhodes who told the British Parliament, ‘Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won the first prize in the lottery of life’. If this was true then what chance did I have in life, especially without a ticket?
Can you tell us about some of your fond memories of your time at King’s?
Surprisingly I never took any interest at all in any of the School Music activities. However, in spite of my limited sporting ability, I represented the School in Hockey and Cricket. In the latter I was lucky enough to have taken the highest number of wickets in 1954, creating a new School record. However, the success was short-lived as my friend Rex Sellers broke the record 2 years later and became a member of the Australian Test Cricket team.
I felt a sense of achievement on those occasions whenever I heard my name being called out at Assembly for achievement in sports, which gave me much-needed encouragement and confidence.
I must admit the one source of constant irritation at King’s was the mispronunciation of my abbreviated name Kamahl to ‘Camel’. My passport name is Kandiah Kamalesvaran, which means Kamalesvaran son of Kandiah. Until 1963 I was called Kamal. However, after my visit to Sydney in 1962 to appear at the Hotel Australia I decided to add an ‘h’ as a deterrent to being called Camel.
How did your music career evolve?
It began the day I heard Nat King Cole sing Nature Boy at the home of Gladys and Stan Morecombe. The music didn’t matter at all but the words stayed with me permanently.
The Morecombe home became our second home. It was there that we group of Asian students were welcomed to their home every weekend. The friendship began earlier when we frequented the milk bar they owned on Magill Rd at St Morris. Gladys had a heart as big as a house.
It was there one day I found the courage to attempt to make my first public appearance. Very nervously I approached Gladys Morecombe and tried to tell her that I would like to sing. She was taken by surprise. ‘Can you sing?’, she asked. I told her I wasn’t sure but was willing to try, and asked her to turn the lights off if and when I started to sing. The lights were turned off and I sang. Fortunately later that evening someone at the party said that I sounded a little like Nat King Cole, which installed enough encouragement and confidence that eventually became a lifelong career in ‘communicating’. I began listening to Western music endlessly to acclimatise myself to the new and strange sounds to overcome its dissonance. As a result the words meant more to me than the music and they still do. Miraculously it seemed that Nature Boy was more than a mere song; it was my basic philosophy. ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return’.
Something within me was unlocked the moment I heard Nature Boy and my casual interest became an obsession. I knew that I desperately wanted to be a ‘communicator’ but not so much a singer.
From then on I started practising my songs whenever and wherever I could. I was still very self-conscious so I had to practise in secrecy. I recall on a few occasions standing in the middle of Haslam Oval with a blanket over my head singing my head off hoping not to attract any attention. However, I was greeted with the landing of a few stones and objects around to silence me!
Eventually I summoned up enough courage to perform to a small group of friends, who were so positive that I became confident enough to start to sing to larger and larger groups. By the time I had left school and went off to the University of Adelaide I was already performing in cafes, restaurants and bars.
You mentioned earlier the cultural challenges you had when you first came to Adelaide as a young man; did you experience similar challenges in your working life too?
Yes, absolutely. In a strange way, though, I realised that those early challenges had made me quite resilient and taught me very valuable lessons in life. I knew that I would need to overcome many obstacles if I was ever going to succeed.
I realised that being conspicuously different could be an advantage with a positive attitude. From a near disaster in December of 1958 when I was on the verge of deportation, I was saved by the compassionate and caring attitude of the Registrar of the University of Adelaide, Harry Wesley-Smith.
Knowing my predicament Harry said that he had heard his sons talk about my singing around the clubs in Adelaide and invited me to sing at his home on NYE in 1958. He thought my voice was fine but I had a tendency to make strange faces. However, following the audition Harry introduced me to Professor John Bishop who was Head of the Adelaide Conservatorium. Max Worthley was my first voice teacher. Within a year, miraculously, it seems I learnt all three recitatives and four arias at the local church in Kensington. I still can’t believe it.
Can you tell us about some career highlights?
I have indeed been very fortunate in my life to have met some incredible people over more than six decades. As for record sales since 1967, Polygram Records have sold over 20 million albums worldwide.
I have been fortunate enough to have performed at the most prestigious concert halls internationally—Carnegie Hall, The London Palladium, Sydney Opera House and the major concert halls in Europe.
I have recorded songs from some of the world’s great songwriters and performed with incredible musicians. I have also appeared on numerous occasions at Royal Command Performances for both British and European Royal families, presidents and prime ministers. I have also had the pleasure to personally meet some incredible people including several past presidents, especially one of my personal heroes Barack Obama. I have also made so many tremendous personal friends along the way including the late great Sir Donald Bradman, who I first met on the first day of the cricket season in 1955, having taken a hat trick with the first three balls of the season and a final figure of 7 for 58. I met Sir Donald that afternoon at the Kensington Club change room. When a cricketing friend said, ‘Do you have any idea who just shook your hand?’, I had no idea whatsoever who it was. I was completely flabbergasted when he said it was Sir Donald Bradman. Incredible as it may seem I met him again 33 years later soon after his 80th birthday at his home in Holden Street, one street away from King’s College.
The second meeting took place because of a song that I recorded for the Bicentenary in 1988 called What is Australia to me? Although the organisers of the bicentenary comprehensively rejected my FDA (Fair Dinkum Australian) song, the meeting and acceptance of the song by Sir Donald helped overcome the hurt, humiliation and rejection. However, serendipitously I had a chance meeting with Sir Eric Neal who was then Chairman of The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. He was impressed enough with the songs for me to sing them for Prince Edward in 1988 on the eve of the Brisbane Expo. The Royal approval restored my faith in the songs and inspired me to send Sir Donald a copy of the song with a letter. The rest is history.
While I have been the recipient of many awards and citations, the single most unforgettable experience of my career to date was the unexpected invitation at the 2018 Invictus Games to recite the 150 year old poem by 18th-century English poet William Ernest Henley called Invictus, the poem that Nelson Mandela recited to overcome his more than 27-year maximum prison sentence in Robben Island Prison. This poem inspired him and other prison mates to stay put and keep going through the hard times.
Above and beyond all the ‘rewards’, however, to be made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1994 and be awarded the Australian Centenary Medal in 2000 were beyond my wildest dreams.
Do you have any advice for our students leaving School?
- I wish I had learnt to manage my money.
- Make sleep a priority because sleep is essential for health and brain function.
- Learn to embrace challenges rather than avoid them. Choose to see challenges as fun opportunities to learn.
- Be kind to yourself and learn to become your own best friend. In fact, research has proven that self-compassion is a key component of success.
- Exercise regularly (I wish I did).
- Spend time with people who have the same (or similar) values and goals as you. All of us are influenced greatly by the people we surround ourselves with. Choose to surround yourself with people who will inspire you to become a better person and student.
- Be curious and adventurous.
- Every choice you make shapes your character. Choose wisely.
- 90% of success is doing what others aren’t willing to do.
- Everything worth doing takes time and effort. There are no shortcuts.
- Attitude matters more than intelligence or talent!!!
- Perception is maybe more important than reality. However, be true to yourself.