February 2020

Arts & Letters

The king in exile: Gordon Koang

By Anwen Crawford
The music of the South Sudanese star and former refugee offers solace and a plea for unity

“My songs come from different directions,” Gordon Koang says. We’re sitting in a tidy cafe in Dandenong, suburban Melbourne, early in the summer, and over the hiss of the coffee machine Koang and his cousin Paul Biel are talking about the music they play together.

Koang is a singer who accompanies himself on the thom (pronounced “tuhm”), a six-string instrument with a box-shaped body. I had mistakenly thought of the thom as something like a banjo but it’s actually closer in origin, Biel explains, to the tanbūra, a type of lyre. Biel plays percussion: the bul, a two-sided conical drum, and the djembe. The cousins’ music has its roots in South Sudan, where the two men were born and raised, but draws its energy, Biel will later insist, from “east and west and north and south, in Africa and in the world”.

Right now, though, Koang is describing a more elusive and immaterial kind of inspiration. “Some of the songs, they come when I’m sleeping,” he says. “They come out of dreams. Then in the morning I play it on the thom, and put the vocal and thom together, and the song becomes good.” In his dreams, Koang says, he is accompanied by men and women who sing the songs with him; in waking life, he teaches each part to his band, “the way God showed me in the night-time”.

The self-described “Michael Jackson of South Sudan” already has an extensive discography – 10 albums – and a huge popular following in both his country of birth and in neighbouring Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. He has a passionate interest in music as a means of community-building, and this interest has carried over into the songs that Koang has been writing more recently in Australia.

“We’ve written about love and unity, and also peace,” he says, of his forthcoming album, which is called Unity. “Peace and love and unity stuck in our mind, because when we are in Sudan, we don’t love the people when they’re fighting. We need to get the people in a good way, to come in unity, to love themselves … All this we compose on this new album.”

Koang and Biel were introduced to the musicians they’ve been working with locally via the Music in Exile project. Founded by Joe Alexander, who also runs the indie record label Bedroom Suck, Music in Exile is a not-for-profit initiative designed to support the work of asylum-seeker and diaspora musicians living in Australia. It is run, in Alexander’s description, on “a shoestring budget”, mostly cobbled together from grant money; all proceeds from shows and record sales go to the musicians. And Koang is complimentary about the collaborators he has met through the project. “They are clever,” he says. “When I show them the [melody] lines, they are catching it up very quick.”

The Music in Exile roster has grown exponentially in the year or so since its founding, with recent releases by young Kenyan-Australian soul singer Elsy Wameyo and nine-piece percussion-and-vocal ensemble Ausecuma Beats. But Koang is undeniably the star attraction, with two 12-inch singles released through the project so far, remixes out this month, and his album expected in April. In September last year he was awarded the $30,000 Levi’s Music Prize for emerging Australian and New Zealand artists, and, a few days before we spoke, he and his band played the Meredith Music Festival in country Victoria, joined by some onstage dancers in the manner of his shows back in South Sudan. 

“They make me happy,” Koang says, of his live audiences.

Koang sings in Nuer, his first language, and also in Arabic and English. (“When Gordon dreams at night, the dreams come through the mother tongue,” adds Biel, “and then he will translate into other languages.”) Koang has a steady, slightly reedy tenor voice, the timbre of which resonates with the thom. But his voice also cuts across his instrumental patterns, and while the repeating vocal melodies of his songs are often reminiscent of folk tunes or nursery rhymes in their rise and fall, there is something mercurial about the arrangements. The other musicians will circle around Koang’s parts, sometimes doubling the melodies, sometimes harmonising with him. Motifs recur but are never exhausted, not even over the course of songs that sometimes run to 10 minutes or longer. 

“I want to teach people,” Koang says, of the repetition that characterises his music. “When I sing ‘Stand up and clap your hands’, then I repeat it, because I want people to know the meaning of the song.” It’s a version of call and response, and it’s palpable when Koang plays live; the songs are addresses to his listeners, even if, in Australia, not everyone who hears them will understand the meaning of the Nuer or Arabic words.

Koang has toured extensively in the United States and Canada, and first played shows in Australia in 2012, two years before he and Biel claimed asylum here. The two men are members of the Nuer tribe, South Sudan’s second-largest ethnic group, and hail from the town of Nasir, in the Upper Nile region of north-east South Sudan. In 2013, the outbreak of the South Sudanese Civil War saw Nuer people massacred in pogroms led by government soldiers loyal to the country’s reigning president, Salva Kiir, of the majority Dinka people. This targeted ethnic violence was particularly dangerous for Koang, who was born blind.

He and his cousin have been sharing music since they were young boys attending church choir, listening to the singing, drums and piano, eager to learn. “I’ve been playing for 31 years now,” Koang says. He was nine years old when he first began to play music, and just 10 when he began to write his own songs. He started dreaming his music around this time too. “Also, sometimes I used to pray to God, to ask him what I can do in the world, because I am blind. So he gives me the instrument as what I love and my heart is in.”

Koang’s thom – he has recently had a new one built by a local luthier – is made of wood, though traditionally the instrument is made from cowhide. Unlike a banjo or guitar, the instrument has no fingerboard: the strings are free-floating, like a harp’s, stretched from the body to an end piece. A player presses the strings from behind with the fretting hand, and strums with the other hand. Koang holds the thom as a right-handed guitar player would, but also sometimes plays with the body tucked under his left arm. 

All sorts of sonic textures are possible with the thom, from a near percussive scratching that can be heard at the start of “Mal Mi Goa”, an album track first released by Koang last year as a 12-inch, to the complex strummed melody of “Te Ke Mi Thile Ji Kuoth Nhial”, which closes Unity in a wistful, reflective mood.

As we sit and talk, Biel sketches out the many currents that inform the music of the cousins’ now divided homeland. “The north, they cooperate with North Africa, like Libya,” he explains. “So the culture is similar that way, even in the music.” Sudanese players from the north are broadly informed by the melodic modes and drone-based arrangements of Arabic musical tradition; the rebab, a bowed string instrument, is more common there. “But in South Sudan,” says Biel, “we are similar to Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Congo. So that is the difference. If you record in South Sudan, the music will sound different from the north.” 

Koang names his own favourite musicians: firstly, the late singer and multi-instrumentalist Mohammed Wardi, one of Sudan’s most celebrated artists, whose long career spanned the second half of the 20th century and continued into the new millennium. Wardi sang in both Nubian and Arabic, and his songs of freedom resonated with Sudanese listeners who lived through a series of military coups, one in 1959, another in 1969, and a third in 1989.

“And then in the US,” Koang says, “there is a lady, her name is Rihanna.” Ah yes. A man after my own heart.

It’s his combination of civic-mindedness and pop smarts that gives Koang’s music its own particular sense of joy, even when his subject matter is sobering. Take “Asylum Seeker”, which opens the new album, and which was also released as a single last year. “My dear asylum seeker,” Koang sings, “We know you’re waiting for your permanent protection visa / We know you’ve been waiting for a long time.” A keyboard melody imitates the sound of a brass section; the music bounces and bops.

The song is one of his favourites on the record, Koang says. “I composed this song for everyone here who is an asylum seeker, because when you come from your country and there is war, and then you are sitting here for a long time, you don’t have a job, all of this, you become stressed.” Biel puts it even more simply: “I reckon Gordon’s music is a counselling to the people.”

As it is, the cousins’ applications for permanent protection in Australia were finally approved late last year, after a five-year wait. They can now begin the process of applying for family reunification: both Koang’s and Biel’s wives and children remain in exile in Uganda. And they want to tour again soon in Uganda, Egypt and Kenya. “Because [the people there] miss it,” says Biel. “They say, ‘Oh, the king of music, come!’” As for their hometown fans, Koang adds, “because people are still fighting, we will go to them there in the future”.

I ask Koang if he would eventually like to be as popular in Australia as he is in South Sudan. He smiles. “It’s in my mind.”

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

Photograph by Michael Rees-Lightfoot

Cover image of The Monthly, February 2020

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