The ‘Camel’ flowers into prince of music

Australian singer Kamahl started out imitating Nat King Cole, until he heard the celebrated American bass-baritone Paul Robeson. The rest, he tells arts editor HELEN MUSA, is history

WHEN Kamahl was a schoolboy at Kuala Lumpur’s famous Victoria Institution, the kids called him “camel”, but his actual name, Kamalesvaran, comes from “kamal” or “lotus flower” in Tamil.

Kamahl… “I started out imitating Nat King Cole, whose voice was soft… it was hardly audible.”

“So, I guess I’m the prince of the flowers,” the popular singer tells “CityNews”.

Kamahl, 78 years old and still going strong, has been in the news lately, with a performance of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” at the ANU in September and his new triple CD, “Heart and Soul”, is just out.

“CityNews” readers now have the chance to win one of 10 triple-CD packs – the first CD features romantic songs and the second his old hits.

But it’s the third CD that really interests Kamahl.

“That one’s more inspirational,” he says, and it’s got the “Gettysburg Address” in it, 140 years old on November 19.

“I feel I have an affinity with it,” he says, “I met Barack Obama on November 16 last year… I think I started to learn the address on the 19th and then recorded on July 14, believe it or not.”

The US ambassador Jeff Bleich, he says, heard him recite the “Gettysburg Address” on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation at the ANU and he’s sent a copy of Kamahl’s recording to the White House.

“It means more to me than some of the songs I’ve recorded… I hope other people might share in something that moves me,” he explains.

But to millions of Australians, the name Kamahl doesn’t conjure up American rhetoric, but an unforgettably resonant singing voice, of which, he says: “It’s not so much the depth of it, but the colour of it”.

Kamahl says he wasn’t a natural.

“I started out imitating Nat King Cole, whose voice was soft… it was hardly audible,” he says.

Then he heard the celebrated American bass-baritone Paul Robeson, while touring Australia.

“When I first heard Robeson, my first reaction was, ‘his voice is like a cow mooing,’ it was so big, then I realised how magnificent it was,” he says.

Meantime, Kamahl had fallen foul of immigration authorities.

“But the university saved me by inviting me to sing… I sang ‘Silent Night’ à la Nat King Cole at their Christmas concert.”

Rupert Murdoch heard him, tipped him £10, teed up a six-week season for him at the Hotel Australia and, together with his first wife Pat, who remained a close friend until her death, put him up at their home for two years.

Years later at an Opera Australia fundraiser, Murdoch’s sister Helen and her husband paid $12,000 to have dinner with Kamahl.

“There was something incongruous about that… but sadly, she didn’t live long enough to have the dinner,” he recalls.

To Kamahl, success came with hard work. Prof John Bishop, from Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium, found him a proper singing teacher who “heard me croon ‘Nature Boy’ and said: ‘I think you should stop this, and gave me Handel’s Messiah to learn”. Apologising for the pun, he says: “I couldn’t handle it, but I learnt the bass parts for ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ and ‘But Who May Abide’ and ended up singing at a couple of the local churches.”

Kamahl considers himself a bass-baritone like Robeson, whose voice he says was “a voice the earth would have if the earth could sing.”

He most certainly was never a fellow-traveller with Robeson’s Communist sympathies, believing “he was hoodwinked,” so it’s odd to hear his concluding words…

“I’m as well as I can be at my age… when your fellow-travellers are not travelling so well, you carry on and enjoy the view.”

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