by Loh Kok Kin
Sometime in 1987, a crew from the WWF (not that "sports entertainment" organisation, but its environmental namesake) visited Pasar Road School, where I was studying. Gathered in the school hall, we were acquainted with the threats confronting the leatherback turtles of Rantau Abang, the Indian elephants and Sumatran tigers. But tugging our heartstrings were not the droning lectures, nor the still photographs of the exhibition; it was the deep, creamy voice crooning the words of ‘The Elephant Song’ while moving images of those endangered species flashed across the screen via cine-reel. This was the first time I had heard, and heard of, Kamahl.
amahl has sold more records internationally than any Malaysian artist (P. Ramlee included). He has made or released recordings in 21 countries in every continent. He has sung for Queen Elizabeth and other royalty, counts media moghuls like Rupert Murdoch as friends, kept (and still keeps) correspondence with sporting greats such as world cricket legend Donald Bradman, and has won enough coveted music awards to fill a trophy cabinet many times over. Kamahl was also deemed the undisputed successor to the illustrious Frank Sinatra for a song that is now a signature work of Kamahl’s. Yet few Victorians are aware that they share a common V.I. heritage with this international celebrity.
At 11.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 13 November 1934, a second child and first son was born to Kandiah Mayilvaganam (a chief clerk in the engineering department of Malayan Railways) and Elyathangam. They named him ‘Kamaleswaran’, now more fondly known as Kamahl (Kamahl subsequently changed his name to Kamalesvaren to save explaining that ‘w’ was non-existent in Ceylonese and that
The area around the General Hospital and Sentul was his happy hunting ground as a child. But it could have been his graveyard too. Towards the end of World War Two, the Allies were raining bombs across different towns in Malaya and Kuala Lumpur, the capital, certainly did not escape. One day, Kamahl’s mother ordered him on an errand in Sentul. However, he strolled away from his destination, setting himself for a walloping from his mother. Fortunately, when he returned home, his mother not only spared him, but was glad he had wandered. For minutes after he strayed from the destination, the Allies had bombed the Sentul railway yards. Had Kamahl obeyed his mother, he would have walked straight into the air raid.
At the V.I., where Kamahl studied from 1946 to 1952, this Loke Yew House boy (in his official biography, he is incorrectly recorded as a Shaw House boy) defied his parents’ expectations and applied his enthusiasm to hockey and soccer for his house, and played cricket for the school. Once, his sporting enthusiasm almost nipped his future singing career in the bud. In one cricket game, he mis-timed a full toss and the ball smashed into his mouth, ramming his teeth in and damaging his gums. Worse, Kamahl’s treatment was delayed because he diverted to the post office on his way home, and when he got home his mother, thinking he had been in a fight, gave him a beating, instead of taking him to the clinic. He never played cricket again until he went to Australia.
So he switched sports. His team-mate for this new sport was none other than Mohd Hashim Ali, later General Tan Sri, the Chief of the Malaysian Defence Forces and in 1998, Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth Games. Interviewed in 2001, Tan Sri Hashim remembered Kamahl fondly: "He’s very suave and polite. We had many a happy memory playing padder tennis." Padder tennis was played on a badminton court, using wooden bats (similar to, but sturdier than, table-tennis bats) to strike a tennis ball. Interest in the game petered off because the V.I. boys were keener on adrenaline-sapping sports like football, hockey and proper tennis. Kamahl captained the Loke Yew House padder tennis team as well as soccer team.
Even in his early years, Kamahl stamped his singular mark on all he did. His parents had wanted him to study but he had preferred sports. Padder tennis was new and so he blazed a trail for it. In April 1952 the VIOBA announced it was organising a two-day Grand Carnival and Trade Fair in the school premises to raise funds for its clubhouse and it needed attractive posters to lure the K.L public. Noticing that few Indian boys ever succeeded in art, Kamahl decided to enter the design competition for the posters. Astounding everyone else, two of his designs clinched second place. In the 1952 photo of the V.I.’s graduating class, Kamahl dons a black suit, marking him out prominently amidst the sea of traditional white-suited classmates and teachers. Yet, he was no nasty rebel. In Kamahl’s leaving testimonial, the headmaster, Mr J.N. Davies (an Englishman from Birmingham) wrote: "A most conscientious, pleasant and reliable personality. Well-balanced."
Kamahl never forgot the V.I. In 1994, he visited the V.I. museum, while I was on duty. He stopped at one stall, gazed on the words of the school song and said "These aren’t the words that we used to sing". Only later that night did the familiar profile of that visitor register in my memory, and I kicked myself for not asking for his autograph. And many years later, I realised I missed an even bigger opportunity. His comment must have referred to ‘The Old Gray School’, a short-lived School Song that was taught to a handful of classes in the late 1940’s, before the present G.F. Jackson version was composed. I should have requested his rendition of it.
In 1953, complying with his parents' wish that their eldest son pursued a higher education, he decided to do his matriculation in Australia. The cargo ship he boarded to Adelaide carried a load of cattle as well. Officially, Australia was still in the throes of Arthur Calwell’s "Two Wongs don’t make a White" ideology, which treated non-Europeans as second-class residents. Under Prime Minister Robert Menzies, it was staunchly Anglo-Saxon in its outlook. People could not understand why Kamahl would be horrified at cows being slaughtered with spikes jammed into their bovine skulls. They would stare when he and his friends went into the town on weekends to do their shopping. Schoolmates called him Camel. He was embarrassed by his meagre English. Kamahl did his best to be accepted. During one lesson where he was asked to describe his travel experience from Kuala Lumpur, he said he found the air hostesses ‘very serviceable’. When his classmates rolled about in laughter he repeated himself, not seeing the joke in it.
He played hockey and got to represent the combined universities’ team against the New Zealand hockey squad, where his team lost 1-0. It was his first and only international as a sportsman. Kamahl returned to cricket. The master at King’s College, where he matriculated, noted him for "very accurate off-breaks…useful hard-hitting left-hander…needs to use his feet more…a keen fieldsman." But all these endeavours merely masked his misery; and masked them well, for Kamahl was a good actor. When he was alone and needed cheering up, he turned to his heritage – he would sing classical Indian (Carnatic) music to himself.
While Kamahl was in the V.I., his father had schooled him in the complexities of the Hindu music trinity, Mummorthi Vizha, the Navarathri festival, Thamizhosai Vizha and Thevara chanting. At the very least, the family had hoped Kamahl could make a living by teaching these arts at the Sangeetha Abivirthi Sabha, a school of Indian fine arts. This legacy of Carnatic music was to be his companion for life. So powerful was its influence that Kamahl never understood how people could like Western music, which seemed so hollow and mindless. But this was before he heard Nature Boy by Nat King Cole, the fast rising crooner, and later, Ol’ Man River by Paul Robeson.
As a student in Adelaide, Kamahl and his friends regularly visited the Morecombe household during the weekends. For overseas students, such families like the Morecombes provided a home away from home, with home cooked meals and a chance to mingle with fellow Asians thrown in. Besides word games, these gatherings were song-filled. Unlike his friends, Kamahl was too shy to sing or do any impersonations. But these sessions got him listening to the radio, and it was then that he first heard Nat King Cole's silken tones wafting over the air waves. Even so, his admiration for Nat’s voice would have been for naught but for his longing for attention, that which his compatriots who performed during the weekly gatherings seemed to get so much of. So Kamahl secretly practised in his shower until he felt he was ready for his debut!
That big evening, he pulled Mrs Morecombe aside and told her to dim the room lights first, in the ridiculous hope that he wouldn’t be recognised if he made an idiot of himself. He needn't have worried. "I got a wonderful reaction," Kamahl remembers. "I sang without accompaniment – a capella. It’s the way I sang from then on. Always without music, no regard for metre. I just stopped and started when I wanted to. Any thought of metre or rhyme was unimportant. Forget about harmony. I didn’t know what it was." From that day onwards, he kept singing. And singing. Whenever he went to coffee bars with his friends, Kamahl would get them to persuade the proprietor to ask him to sing. But still he was not envisaging a singing career. He took the positive reception to his singing as merely a sign of his acceptance to that foreign land.
Yet Australia, though it had relaxed its residency requirements for non-Europeans, still had its White Australia policy. Education was the sole reason that Kamahl had been given a temporary visa. He went to university to study architecture, a decision partly motivated by his success in the VIOBA poster design competition. When he performed dismally, he switched to arts where, according to his friend Barry Moeller, "he took every course except street sweeping." Even then, his results gave him little solace and his continued stay in Australia seemed doomed as repatriation loomed. The university registrar gave Kamahl one final opportunity. He fixed an appointment for him to see the director of the Elder Conservatorium of Music and, within days, Kamahl was safely enrolled in the Conservatorium.
Convinced that Kamahl’s singing had dimmed his prospects of ever completing university, the Department of Immigration intensified its scrutiny of this wandering minstrel. Immigration rarely gave second chances, but Kamahl, despite having failed architecture and arts, won his reprieve from the Department. But eventually, when that expired in 1958, the order came from Canberra: Bill Schneider, the immigration officer in Adelaide, was to deport Kamahl. Bill, who had been impressed by Kamahl’s performances on Australia’s Amateur Hour, did his best to stall the order, offering excuses including one that Kamahl was one of Australia’s most promising musicians. It didn’t wash; Canberra was insistent.
Bill did the unthinkable; he lied to Canberra that the wandering minstrel had wandered from his sight. It was a half-lie. Kamahl had, indeed, wandered off, but Bill knew he had gone to Sydney. Indeed, Bill was one of the many white knights in Kamahl’s moments of despair, and many such moments had he. In 1962, Kamahl travelled to the Gold Coast, tempted by the promise of an acquaintance that an eight-week contract awaited him at a local coffee bar. But there was no contract, nor had they heard of him and his acquaintance was nowhere to be found. Penniless, Kamahl ventured into the Zuider Zee restaurant, and asked to sing for his meals. Not only was he fed for the day, he was also well-liked by his audience. In the audience was Stirling Moss, the famous British racing driver who recommended Kamahl to a local hotel, where he performed for the next six weeks. A stint on Brisbane television soon followed.
However, the publicity attracted problems. After Kamahl moved to Sydney in 1963, where he first performed at the hang-out of celebrities, the Hotel Australia, his fame finally led Immigration to him. Deportation loomed for Kamahl. Again, Lady Luck kicked in. Among his fans at the Hotel Australia was an old friend he had first met in Adelaide, and with whom he was now lodging. This friend now became Kamahl’s guarantor, writing to Immigration once or twice a year to assure them of Kamahl’s continuing ‘serious’ music studies. This old friend was none other than Rupert Murdoch, who had taken over his family’s newspaper business in Adelaide before penetrating the lucrative Sydney media market in the late 1950’s. (Today, the Murdoch worldwide empire includes Foxtel, News Corporation and BSkyB, among others.)
Kamahl was granted Australian citizenship in 1967. I remember how proud I was when, in 1998, I read in the newspapers the proclamation that Kamahl was ‘Father Of The Year’, a title that in the previous year had gone to John Howard, the Prime Minister. A Malaysian-born, what more an Old Boy of the V.I., declared as an exemplary citizen of Australia, what a feat! And if anyone were to condemn him as a musician past his used-by date, I need only cite his recent invitation to perform at the Big Day Out 2004, the largest youth rock festival in Australia. Kamahl still stirs passion.
Still, it was an uphill task before others saw him for what he was. Even as a young performer, Kamahl had resented being hailed as the ‘Asian Paul Robeson’, or being labelled as a Nat King Cole or a Harry Belafonte. "I don’t say I’m not accepted here, but I feel that if I wasn’t coloured, I wouldn’t be compared to Robeson and other coloured artists." It seemed that those listening to him were merely fantasising about someone else. Kamahl wanted to stamp his mark as an individual and chart his own course in life. Throughout the early sixties, Kamahl played hide and seek with Australian Immigration. Then, in 1966, after an incident at a Brisbane pub, he was asked to report immediately to the authorities in Sydney. He thought that this was it. First, a lady at Immigration read the riot act to him and then she said, 'We've been asked to give you permanent resident status'.
Hours after being granted permanent residency, Kamahl went to the nearest phone box and called St Vincent's hospital where a Fijian Indian lass - Saodra Tikaram - was working. 'Would you like to get married?', he asked. She said, 'When?' He said, 'This week'. He was in love with her but she had been promised to someone else in Fiji. Her mother wasn't very pleased but the rest of the family went along. When Kamahl wrote to his uncle that he had made singing his career and had defied his family’s wishes for an arranged marriage and had, instead, wed a Fijian Indian two rungs below them, his uncle never contacted him for three years. Today Kamahl and Saodra have been married 37 years and have two children, Rajan and Rani. The latter has followed the footsteps of her illustrious father in becoming a performing artist.
Certainly, Kamahl had failures. His first album was recorded by Philips in 1967. Nervous about this raw, untested singer, the manager of Philips records settled on a church in Sydney’s inner-west as the recording venue. As Kamahl recalls, "If you listen hard, you can hear the traffic outside." This album, A Voice To Remember, sold barely more than 1000 copies. Eager to propel sales, Kamahl called the promotions department of David Jones, a leading retail store in Sydney, and volunteered to promote the album himself. They invited him on a Saturday morning, but his day passed with little activity. Finally, a customer approached him and he prepared to autograph his first album. Instead, she asked if he had Elvis Presley’s latest release. She had mistaken Kamahl for a shop assistant!
Somehow, Kamahl convinced Philips to produce another album for him. They called it Dreams Of Love. But they refused to include the little-known song Sounds Of Goodbye. Now Kamahl dealt his terms; he argued that since the studio time for Dreams Of Love was going to take, say, twenty hours, if they finished with two hours left, with enough spare time could they do Sounds Of Goodbye as a single? He got his wish but when the single went out, nothing happened until the Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast the song in Melbourne and talked about this fellow called ‘Kamahl’. Soon commercial stations picked up the story and the resulting publicity made Dreams Of Love Kamahl’s first gold hit in 1969.
During the course of my research, I discovered I wasn't the first present boy to have made contact with Kamahl after he had become a singing icon. In 1982, the V.I.O.B.A. invited Kamahl to perform at the association's Diamond Jubilee celebrations but the singing sensation had a prior booking elsewhere and so had to turn down the invitation with apologies. Nonetheless, he penned a warm message to The Victorian of that year with a message that “I have very fond memories of my boyhood days at the school and these memories are kept alive by the many friendships that have developed since those days. It is my unshakeable belief that it is friends who make life worthwhile.” Accompanying the letter was a poem he had penned, entitled Friends. (It is reproduced at the end of this article).
Kamahl has since performed for royalty such as Queen Juliana of Denmark and Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Command Performance in 1976 and 1982, respectively. In the 1990s, he even flew back to Malaysia for a private performance for Malay royalty. Kamahl has performed at the Sydney Opera House and the glamorous Carnegie Hall. He won the Sydney Daily Telegraph readers’ poll for Variety’s Mo awards four years in a row, and, in 1994, he became "Kamalesvaren Kandiah AM", a Member of the Order Of Australia, the country's third highest titular class. But behind all the glitter and gold, Kamahl has contributed generously towards the Save The Children Fund (which brought him into contact with Princess Ann), the UNICEF Benefit Concert and the World Wildlife Fund.
In 1975, the Dutch composer Hans van Hemert composed a song for the musical finale of a TV special on the World Wildlife Fund. Frank Sinatra was approached to sing it but turned it down. Van Hemert asked the vice-president of Polygram to send him records of singers who "must have the grandeur to star in a royal gala" and deemed fit to step into Sinatra’s shoes. When van Hemert heard Kamahl’s voice, he knew he had found the right person. And since then Kamahl has been the voice of The Elephant Song, one of the anthems of the World Wildlife Fund.
It was a fitting tribute when in 2003, Kamahl released Imagine The World In Unison, an album marking his fiftieth anniversary in Australia, and The Elephant Song was included in the list of hits. After all, Kamahl has been a giant in his own right, bestriding the music scene for nearly half a century. People all over the world love the uniquely sonorous, bellowing voice of this former V.I. boy who once played cricket, football, hockey and padder tennis. A boy who sought love and attention and dreamed dreams. The words of his very first Western song, Nature Boy have indeed come full circle:
The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Happy 70th Birthday, Kamahl!
This article draws heavily on Christopher Day’s Kamahl – An Impossible Dream
Friends are never earned
Who is your friend?
Last update October 31, 2004.
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