Gordon Koang's musical journey from South Sudan to Australia

Thursday, 09 Jul 2020

(Gordon Koang and Paul Biel. Photo by Duncan Wright)

South Sudanese singer, songwriter and musician Gordon Koang wowed industry attendees with his performances at last year’s BIGSOUND, taking home the conference’s prestigious Levi’s Music Prize.

It’s a prize that is typically given to an emerging artist to financially support burgeoning international opportunities. When Gordon won, though, he was already a beloved musician in his home country and had performed worldwide to audiences in Canada, USA, Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

But that was prior to 2014, the year Gordon’s international career went on hiatus when he and his cousin and touring companion Paul Biel, upon hearing news of increasing conflict in their homeland, remained in Australia at the end of a tour and sought asylum, applying for humanitarian protection.

“Even in difficult situations, the music still comes.”

Gordon was born blind and at age 8 he was told in a dream, “Gordon, because you are blind, we will give you the songs. You will be the one who composes them, put them in your thom, and you will play them.”

The ‘thom’ is an East African string instrument, and by age 11, Gordon was playing to crowds, singing songs primarily in his native language, Neur. He was ten albums into his career when he sought asylum, with him and Paul staying in Dandenong as they navigated a new life.

“When I came here, I didn’t think I could do anything,” says Gordon. But composing is a daily practice of his. "Even in difficult situations, the music still comes,” he says, with Gordon often drawing song ideas from everyday conversations and coming up with his compositions at night.

But how does a refugee in Gordon's situation get back to making music? "I'd been anxious about connecting with Australian musicians, because it's very hard when you come to a country and you don't know people. That time was a very difficult time to connect myself."

At the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Dandenong, Gordon says, "We told them we were musicians. 'Can you help us get together with other musicians?' So they called Arik Blum."

Gordon and Paul soon met Arik Blum from GRID Series who connected them to Multicultural Arts Victoria through producer and hip hop artist Joel Ma (Joelistics). This led to an introduction to Joe Alexander, who runs Bedroom Suck Records and Music in Exile, an artist-driven initiative working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia.

"I thank Arik, I thank him so much."

Getting a band together

Through Music in Exile, Gordon was able to record music, with his first English language single ‘Stand Up (Clap Your Hands)’ released in 2018. Gordon has been an APRA AMCOS member since 2016.

A band soon came together with help from Joe. The songs and musical direction are Gordon’s, with the current line-up of players featuring drums, bass, keys, percussion, violin, Gordon on vocals and thum and Paul on djembe.

Was it hard to form bonds with a new band? “I love to work with new people, I think I am different from some musicians. Sometimes in the music industry, when you meet new people, it’s really hard to connect yourself with them to work – to do the music and compose the songs and teach them lines and show them the ways to play the music.

“In my mind, I love to work with new people so much, because I learn a lot of ideas from them.

And of his backing band he says, “They learn my lines very quick. I love the way they play.”

Joe says, "Working with Gordon is a pleasure and a joy. When Gordon calls, you can hear the smile down the other end of the phone line. He’ll greet you with a hail of hellos and questions, excited to be embarking on another adventure in the music world. It makes me smile every time."

Peace, love and Unity

Melbourne musicians Stefan Blair and Liam Parsons (the duo Good Morning) have worked closely with Gordon on arrangements and in the recording studio, and on 14th August, Gordon releases his 11th album, Unity. It is his first album to be released in the painstakingly long six years of living as an asylum seeker, and completed just weeks before Gordon was granted his permanent residency.

And, on the challenges of releasing new music in the midst of a pandemic and social upheaval, Gordon says, “We are in a difficult situation. But we will put our music everywhere and connect people.

“I put peace, love and unity in my music. If there’s peace in the house, share the peace with your neighbours, share it from community to community.”

New songs continue to come to Gordon and he's been in the studio again in recent weeks.

Gordon and Paul have both been separated from their Uganda-based families since 2014 and hope to be reunited soon. Releasing Unity and hopefully being able to play live again, as they have to enthusiastic crowds at Meredith Music Festival, Perth Festival and Strawberry Fields, will help to make it possible.

“Now the music is getting established, if the music comes good, we can bring them here,” Gordon says.


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