Kamahl: An Impossible Dream
Kamahl is the name which, for over four decades, has identified the music and unique voice of a man who is one of the most sensational recording stars in Australian history. This is his inspiring and heart-warming story.
When he arrived in Adelaide from Malaysia as a Tamil Hindu schoolboy in 1953, after a tormented childhood under Japanese occupation, he was a black in an alien white country. A lone teenager speaking poor English, totally unfamiliar with Western music and his only skills were those on the sports fields.
Shyly, he learned to sing, from pop to the classics, inspired by other great black artists such as Nat King Cole, Paul Robeson and William Warfield, all of whom he met. He survived by agility and luck, outwitting the Immigration Department and the “White Australia Policy”, which wanted him deported. Kamahl was protected mainly with the loyalty of his mentor and friend, Rupert Murdoch.
He always swam against the tide, acquiring along the way a reputation for toughness and arrogance which was a shield against the feelings of racial inferiority which have haunted him throughout his life. He cheerfully took career gambles as few others have done, audaciously hiring the London Palladium to star himself, twice playing Carnegie Hall in New York, and arriving as an unknown in Europe with a hit about an elephant that made him a star there.
The story of his life, which took him from a child in the cow paddocks of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to being a performer able to count among his friends some of the great and mighty, is one of the most extraordinary adventures in show business… from being bombed in Malaysia to a sometimes turbulent, but enduring marriage in Australia, to making and losing a fortune, and making it again. His philanthropy along the way is legend, and for it he was made a Member of the Order of Australia.
But, above all, Kamahl is still entertaining … and still packing them in.
The capacity of the human brain is, I am told, pretty much the same for all of us. Always providing there is no neurological damage and given all the right components such as environment, food, education, stimulus and encouragement, we should be expected to perform at a similar high level of excellence. But we don’t. Humans differ vastly in performance. In other words, the thing that separates one human from another is not the size of quality of the stuff that rests above your eyebrows, but something else.
Why are some people exceptional achievers and others seem to constantly stumble and get lost and some even appear to deliberately throw away their lives? Why is there no uniform process? Do this and that and something else and you’ll be a guaranteed success? Why isn’t there a nicely worked out format? Well, curiously enough, I think there is, or if not a format, a single ingredient which overrides all the others. It is the need to be different or simply to find yourself different and to celebrate this component in your life.
Kamahl arrived in Australia in his teens knowing that he was different, but not even he expected children to throw stones at him because of the colour of his skin.
He had come from a musical family but suddenly the music he heard made no sense. He had been born to the melody and rhythm of India and now his ears were assailed by the harmony and counterpoint of Western music. The Australian food of the 50s tasted like “boiled carpet” after the exotic curries of his accustomed cuisine and the language people spoke, though English in origin it had the twang and resonance of a broken guitar. He was confused, lonely and alienated and separated from those he loved. He had a choice to fall down in a heap, of fight himself self out of the mess, to be different.
How curious that for some people loneliness, alienation, separation and an absence of loving and caring parents should be part of the ingredients for success, when so often these very factors are used as the primary excuse for failure? The difference that delivers success or failure is the tiny voice within you which says, “I’m different, I can make it!”.
If, at an early age we are taken over the top and right up to the wire, we have to decide whether we are going to cut through it and attack life or crawl back to the safety of the trenches. Most people who find themselves alienated early in life simply turn around and flee back to the trenches and many get mown down on the way, while others spend their lives happily hidden, determined never again to raise their heads.
If you read his book you will see how Kandian Kamalesvaran, a small Tamil child, consistently climbed out of the trenches and, as we say in Australia, “Had a go!”. He was a finalist in the Sun Aria, Australia’s most prestigious musical competition. He put himself through the Conservatorium and when it was suggested he followed a classical career, he disappointed everybody by choosing popular ballads.
His recording and concert career reached spectacular heights, including performances at the London Palladium and Carnegie Hall in New York. And so we see, the major ingredient for success in life is brilliantly exemplified by a human being who, appearing to have everything against him, always has two things going for him: courage and an absolute belief in himself. Without courage we never leave the trenches and without belief that we can defeat the enemy we never cut through the wire and lead the attack.
There is a further component so readily apparent in this remarkable human. It is the ability to pick himself up, dust himself off and start all over again. Simply, a refusal to accept defeat. Some of us think only of how high the mountain and how difficult the climb, others like Kamahl, think of the glorious view to be found at its top.
Most of us spend our lives walking down the centre of the road and then wonder why we get hit by traffic coming from both directions. Kandiah Kamalesvaran has dared his genius to walk the wildest unknown way, and in doing so, he has been successful in the game of life. In the process he has given a great deal of pleasure to a great many people.
He has not indulged himself or thought himself more important than his audiences. He has a lovely wife and family and is a caring husband and father. This brings me to the last ingredient, the desire to be a complete part of the larger human race. Kamahl may be Malaysian-born and an Australian by choice, but he has used his talent to transcend colour, language and nationality to become a human being for whom barriers of the heart and mind are lifted everywhere for him out of love and affection. I am proud to count him my friend and am delighted that he has told his remarkable story.
KAMAHL: AN IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
Hardcover Book ISBN 0 09 183086 9
Random House Australia
First Published 1995
© Copyright 1995 Kandiah Kamalesvaran