Kamahl laughs when I remind him of the reason for this interview, but none of us at Peril knew, long ago when the theme of this issue was chosen, that Kamahl would soon be thrust back into the spotlight.
“Let me tell you the origin of that phrase,” he begins in the voice that made him famous. I could try to describe its depth and resonance, the way it draws you in, but most of Australia, as well as international fans, know that already.
Flying out from Amsterdam from a November 13th birthday reception his record company had thrown for him, he arrived in New York and met Jimmy Bishop, the A&R manager for Sony who had a number of cassette tapes for him to listen to. The one that caught Kamahl’s ear was called What Would I Do Without My Music?. “I kid you not,” he tells me, “when I first heard it, maybe I was tired, I had tears in my eyes listening to it. It was almost like a prayer.” It reminded him of a Schubert Lied that he explained said thanks to music for taking us to a better world.
“But the more I listened to it, then I became slightly critical. The lines were: sometimes I stumble home at night, discouraged, wondering if the battle is worth fighting and why people are so blind? I thought that kindness is more significant than blindness and without consulting the composer, I took it upon myself to change it and to this day, I haven’t been sued!”
Kamahl recorded the song, and performed it on the Bob Hope Show as well as various Australian shows. He can’t pinpoint who it was who did it, but he says the phrase got pinned to him like a donkey’s tail, as a Unique Selling Proposition with its ups and downs, “a handlebar for me”, mostly positive but “every time I see someone young or old, they say, ‘hey Kamahl, why are people so unkind…’”
He brings up Hey, Hey It’s Saturday without prompting but stumbles trying to explain. “Unfortunately, the show has never been to my advantage,” he says finally. “I used them, and they used me. On hindsight, I would have been better without it.”
The Jackson Jive skit was unfortunate for different reasons. “What really got under my skin,” he tells me is that there were two milestones this year, the 50th anniversary on 17 October, 2009 of his first appearance on television, and the 40th anniversary of his first hit record, The Sounds of Goodbye. But there was no media attention or respect. At the same time, everyone was asking Kamahl whether he would appear on the Hey, Hey reunion. He didn’t expect an invitation as he wasn’t part of “that family”, he was a guest performer “more off than on.”
The organisers waited until the eve of the first show to make the invitation, which clashed with a previous commitment to his charity work with the Variety Club. They invited him for the next show, but to do what? “You can sit in the Green Room,” they told him, “after you find your own accommodation and pay your own airfare to get here.” Compared to the respect shown to him through the Variety Club, who had named him one of their 100 greatest performers of the century, it was a poor showing. When the infamous show was aired, he wasn’t even paying particular attention to it. He saw the replay of the Red Faces skit, and was annoyed at the cartoon of him saying “Where’s Kamahl?” but forgot about it. They had done similar jokes before. Kamahl didn’t think the sketch was really racist, “ it was purely something in very bad taste… a slight lapse of judgement… and also Michael Jackson having passed away a short time ago…”
Then Kamahl got an e-mail from Channel 7 the following morning asking whether he wanted to make a comment. His wife said, “the show was good for you, aren’t you biting the hand that fed you?” He replied, “Frankly, they never fed me, they never promoted my career, they used me to make jokes out of. I don’t think that show ever helped me sell a record.” “Being on television,” he tells me, “people recognise you, but what they think, what their perception is, I don’t know.”
“So, the guy came in for the interview – and I didn’t tell them the real reason why I was disappointed…the guy was trying to get me to say that Australia is a racist country and I was trying to say we are no more racist than anyone else. I didn’t even bring up the point. My wife said a few months ago the Indians were being targeted in Melbourne and I stood up to say that’s not an act of racism, it’s about being in the wrong place at the right time, other aspects… so cut to this, as he was leaving at the door, he said ‘are you going to sue them?’ and I said [in a joking tone] ‘that’s a great idea.’ Front page next day. And with that, an avalanche: some very upset people that I was being a hypocrite and at the same time, a majority of people who said heartfelt things about me speaking up and them never feeling comfortable about [Hey, Hey] taking the mickey out of me.”
I said I can imagine a defense from Hey, Hey saying that they take the mickey out of everyone. But he rebukes me, “Not everybody. They crawl to some. They take the mickey out of who suits them. They never took the mickey out of Jimmy Barnes, John Farnham. That’s not true at all.”
An example: on the eve of his performance at Carnegie Hall in 1984, Kamahl was pelted with a powder puff on a Hey, Hey Saturday show. A friend of his, an Australian living in Nashville, saw this on youtube only last year, and told Kamahl, “I’m ashamed to be Australian. How could anybody treat any of their artists the way they do?”
I press him, “what was it like to be the only splash of colour among a sea of white entertainers?” without realizing how my question echoes the pressure of the Channel 7 reporter to lay claim to being a victim of racism. So Kamahl tells me of an earlier interview where he announced “No one has asked me whether I am racist or not!” He frankly admits as a young Tamil Sri Lankan Malaysian arriving in Australia in the 1950s that he was also a product of his time.
“Til Cassius Clay [aka Muhammad Ali] said Black is Beautiful…I didn’t realize they were a beautiful people… Suddenly you stop and see and think and you perceive.” Who would have known, he went on, that the greatest interpreters of Western classical music would be Asians like Yo Yo Ma, Zubin Mehta and Lang Lang. But years ago, he would have thought Asian musicians inferior. “We grow up with a whole set of false prejudices and then it’s up to each one of us to check these bits of information to see if this is really true.”
At the same time, he acknowledges the effect of being a racial and cultural minority as profound:
“My whole purpose of getting into show business was not so much to sing, as it was to communicate, because of my ethnicity, being black in Adelaide in Australia in 1953 and 54, it was a very different experience, not like now. The few of us Asian students at King’s College would be the only few non-white students. It made me extremely self-conscious and shy, and I try to avoid talking about it, but there’s an inferiority complex – you don’t have to be black to have it – even now, if I go into a room of strangers, the old doubts and fears come rushing back…It’s a feeling that as a non-white person, you’re of little or no consequence, and that’s what the Australians thought of the Aborigines 30 years ago, they were regarded as no more important than cattle, and I identified with them. So I have great sympathy for their plight, and I’m sort of caught between them and a white man.”
But he notes changes in Australian society: “On a daily basis, a majority of Australians have become more inclusive, there’s no doubt about it, especially in the cities, in Sydney, it’s truly cosmopolitan.”
So, many years after his first successes, it seems that Kamahl’s life continues to be a combination of hard work and personality, and chance, this latest media flurry from an offhand remark. This much-loved Australian icon has received a divided response about the Hey, Hey incident. “Some people say, get a life and don’t worry about it. Partly because I should have at the very beginning said that it would have been nice to have some small gesture of respect instead of derision.”
The flurry of headlines in early October in the Daily Telegraph and ABC news portrayed an angry man “threatening” a lawsuit; on the contrary, it seems to have been an opportunity for reflection on where he stands in today’s popular culture. He would have liked to handle the incident better. “But,” he laughs, “then I would have missed out on the front page.”
At the end of the interview, I tell him what an extraordinary career he’s had. “Yeah, from your point of view, but for me, when you have lived it, it doesn’t seem all that,” he replies in that voice which is anything but ordinary.
Kamahl Interview, Part 2: Extras!
When I arrived at Kamahl’s beautiful and spacious home in quiet North Sydney, he asked me to sit down at his table, and apologized if there were any problems with our interview time. He had to go to an event that afternoon for the Screenwriter’s Guild. “I don’t know why they want me there, I’m not a composer for films,” he said offhandedly. “Decomposing perhaps, but…”
Here’s more of Kamahl’s wit and self-deprecating grace:
I’ve always had the highest regard for my audience. I’ve never short-changed or deceived them and had the utmost respect for them and it’s been returned not two-fold but ten-fold…
Kamahl often receives fan letters or requests from people who tell him how important his songs have been to their families or lives:
When all is said and done, that is what you hope for but you never think you’ll get, like being part of somebody’s family for their engagement, their wedding, their funeral, to be that way involved, from the humble beginning, is an interesting journey, sometimes I think it’s much too much, sometimes when you get letters like that, you think it’s worth the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
On being a tall poppy
The “Elephant Song” became the number one song in Holland, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland… sometimes when you have that kind of success, that irritates the locals, because they haven’t had it. “Why him?” they go. It’s less so now, and with the rock and rollers it’s fine, but it could have been an element of tall poppy syndrome…It’s difficult because in America they respect the people who’ve stood the distance. Here there is scant regard for that sort of thing.
On his friendship with Donald Bradman
One of the unexpected events in my life was meeting Sir Donald Bradman and enjoying his friendship for the last 13 years of his life. It was the closest thing to meeting God.
On meeting Rupert Murdoch who eventually became his sponsor for citizenship.
That was an absolute fluke, he was in a restaurant with his first wife, and I happened to be the singer for the night, singing for my sandwiches, not even paid. That same evening, when it was over, somebody invited me to go with them to another party that later turned out to be the News Limited Christmas party of 1958, and it was because the people reacted so generously and warmly and not Rupert’s musical taste that he was moved to rush to me literally and hand me a ten pound note. I haven’t reminded him of that… I didn’t want to embarrass him.
On reality TV stars
The guy who sang Nessum Dorma on English Idol [Paul Potts], he had 58 million hits [on youtube], Pavarotti had 12 million, and [there are other older singers] who sing better, and died a long time ago… Paul is a turkey compared to the others! 58 million hits to listen to a turkey. That’s the sad part. It’s good that that many people were exposed to a better kind of music… but these kinds of things bother me a lot.
A favourite author?
Vikram Seth. I found his writing quite brilliant. I went to a book launch of his. He was a lot smaller than I thought he would be. It was funny, when he stood up he was shorter than when he was sitting because they had a funny high chair. This is the perception. You think great minds come in larger parcels!
A “magnificent” book about Charles Darwin.
Kamahl is involved with many charities including the newly revived World Wildlife Fund, the Ronald McDonald House, The Red Cross and The Bradman Foundation.
His last recording was “I was a mate of Don Bradman” which he was disappointed didn’t get more attention. Kamahl is also looking at selling his back catalogue of songs (500-600) as a way of keeping his legacy alive.
What advice do you have for some of our young Asian-Australian writers and artists as they are starting their careers?
I don’t think there is any substitute for knowledge, to know as much about your craft. I say this because I never had the chance to do that. And get the best coach, it’s cheaper in the long run. I don’t think talent alone is enough… Talent is one thing but [you need] determination. Perseverance. There is this element of luck, to be at the right time and right place. Be forever ready when the moment comes to grab it. Very seldom do you get a second chance. Because it is a jungle. You got to have a fire in your belly… Find that one person in your life who believes in you, as much as you believe in yourself, or even more, especially if you can find that person in a company to help you and guide you. I found one or two of those people along the way.