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Kamahl’s fight for equality and justice

This year will mark the 160th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a speech US President Abraham Lincoln delivered during the American Civil War at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, now known as Gettysburg National Cemetery, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the afternoon of November 19, 1863, four-and-a-half months after the Union armies defeated Confederate forces in the Battle of Gettysburg.

The short speech (272 words) has long inspired Malaysian-born Tamil-Australian recording artist Kandiah Kamalesvaran AM, better known by his stage name Kamahl. The singer of love songs and ballads – one of the great stars of Australian music – recorded it for his 2012 triple-CD Heart and Soul (ABC). In 2013 he was invited to deliver the Address at Parliament House on the 150th anniversary of the original oration.

It’s clear Lincoln’s words, in their own way “musical”, hold personal and political meaning for Kamahl. They resonate with the singer’s own experience of life – struggle, betrayal and disappointment as well as the joys of connection, community and family.

Gettysburg’s themes: the fight for equality, for peace with justice, for freedom – “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – invite creative engagement on the part of an artist as for anyone concerned to see decency and democracy prevail. Indeed, the wellbeing of all depends on a certain wisdom – our learning to embody kindness, fairness and faithfulness.

One of Kamahl’s highest charting singles, “The Elephant Song” (1975), made him a household name all over the world. The lyric speaks to contemporary ecological crises: “Tell me said the elephant/ Tell me brothers if you can/ Why all the world is full of creatures/ Yet we grow in fear of man … Listen said the elephant/ It is conservation time/ So take the warning when we trumpet/ For the future of mankind …”

Kamahl has recorded over 30 albums containing many number-one hits and earning over 100 gold and platinum records. He has performed in prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall (twice) and the Sydney Opera House. The longevity of his success has few parallels.

For his philanthropy along the way Kamahl was made a Member of the Order of Australia (1994). He was Australian Father of the Year in 1998, and was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal by the Queen in 2004.

In 2011, Kamahl met President Barack Obama, whose memoir, The Audacity of Hope (2006), continues to inspire.

“Life is made of memories and music,” Kamahl says. “These have spiritual meaning, precious and beautiful. That you can reach out to people, and be accepted in return, is the highest reward possible in performance and life.”

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