How South Sudan’s ‘king of music’ beats back despair

Why We Wrote This

How do you convey perseverance in art? Those who know the work of refugee Gordon Koang say the South Sudanese musician has found a way to channel his unifying, life-affirming outlook into songs for the masses. 

Duncan Wright/Courtesy of Pitch Perfect PR
Musician Gordon Koang (left), often called the "king of music" in South Sudan before seeking asylum in Australia, stands with his cousin Paul Biel (right). Mr. Koang recently released his 11th album, "Unity," a plea on behalf of refugees everywhere.

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When Gordon Koang, a popular South Sudanese musician, left for a tour in 2013, he didn’t realize he would not be returning. Violence erupted in his nascent home country and rather than go back, the man known as the “king of music” requested asylum in Australia. 

Mr. Koang is now releasing his first album from exile. Titled “Unity,” it’s not only a prayer for reunification with his own family – whom he hopes will be granted permission to join him soon – but it’s also a plea on behalf of refugees everywhere. As he gains attention from listeners and music critics internationally, his joyful music conveys what Mr. Koang says is his core message: “If the world unites itself, no one will say, ‘I am alone.’”

Aiding in the making of the album was Joe Alexander, the founder of Music in Exile, a nonprofit record label for refugee musicians in Australia. He set up a recording session for Mr. Koang and seven musicians, ranging from keyboardists to violinists.

In an email, Mr. Alexander says of his experience with the blind musician, “I have never met a man that continues to be so positive, and so warm, despite the most difficult and trying circumstances.” 

On his new album, Gordon Koang wrote a song to the young daughter he has never met.

She knows her father by reputation. Mr. Koang has been hailed as the “king of music” in his homeland of South Sudan. That renown led to a series of international shows in 2013 and 2014. While touring abroad, the musician realized that growing ethnic violence in his country would make returning home unsafe. While his family took refuge in Uganda, Mr. Koang and his cousin, who is also a bandmate, accepted an offer to perform in Australia and applied for asylum.

The musician’s 11th record, the first he’s released in exile, is titled “Unity.” It’s not only a prayer for reunification with his own family – whom he hopes will be granted permission to join him soon – but it’s also a plea on behalf of refugees everywhere. His message is reaching new audiences, as Mr. Koang won the prestigious Levi’s Music Prize at last year’s BigSound festival and music industry conference in Brisbane, Australia. Now his album is garnering attention in international music publications such as NME and Pitchfork. Its jubilant music conveys what Mr. Koang says is his core message: “If the world unites itself, no one will say, ‘I am alone.’”

“While many of us struggle with instability and view it as a state we need to get through, his music suggests that he has, at the very least, figured out how to accept being between states, and that he’s determined to find joy and peace and happiness even when the world doesn’t want to give it to him,” says music critic Marty Sartini Garner, a contributing writer to Pitchfork, who reviewed “Unity” for the publication.

“A friend to everyone”

After a lifetime of alternating between singing in his native language, Nuer, and Arabic, Mr. Koang has been writing a few songs in English, including “Stand Up (Clap Your Hands).” One of several songs on “Unity” about the power of community, Mr. Koang says it expresses his sentiment toward the Australians who’ve embraced his performances at major music festivals: “I am a friend to them. My music also is a friend to everyone.” 

Mr. Koang, who is blind, started his musical journey accompanying the choir at his Presbyterian church in his hometown of Nasir. His instrument of choice is a thom (pronounced “tuhm”), which he was introduced to at a young age by a relative who wanted to help Mr. Koang feel less lonely while his family was out working. His custom-made version resembles a box-shaped acoustic guitar with a six-stringed lyre affixed to it. Eager to start composing songs of his own, he prayed for help. One night he had a dream in which a man taught him a melody. When Mr. Koang woke up, he quickly replicated the tune on his instrument. He still writes his songs this way.  

“I thank God for it so much, because I call myself a songwriter. But I’m not writing them. They come in a dream. When I wake up in the morning, I get them in my heart,” he says in a video call from his apartment in Melbourne, Australia.

Mr. Koang eventually ventured to larger Sudanese cities such as Juba and Khartoum. He was accompanied by his cousin and best friend, Paul Biel, a percussionist. The duo built a fan base the old-fashioned way: gigging. They played gospel songs to a network of church communities and played secular folk songs on the city streets. They handed out free homemade compact discs. Radio play followed, as did opportunities to play in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and, later, shows overseas. 

In 2011, South Sudan became independent from Sudan. Two years later, a civil war broke out in the fledgling nation. After a 2013 tour of North America, Mr. Koang and Mr. Biel flew to Uganda to reunite with their families at a camp in Kampala. Soon after, they toured in Australia. When the pair requested asylum in that country, they thought it would be a quick process that would allow their families to join them. But it was the start of an arduous limbo. They couldn’t seek employment until their new country granted them residence. 

“We decided to be in this problem, because this problem is very little [compared with] the problem we moved from,” says Mr. Koang. “We kept hearing that all our friends and relatives had been killed.”  

Influenced by family

Mr. Koang started playing for small groups of people to make money to send to his family. He wrote “South Sudan,” a tribute to an aid worker he’d known in Africa, and also “Asylum Seeker,” a song of encouragement for those awaiting a ruling on their legal status. Mr. Koang’s voice performs a promenade dance with the thom, sometimes spinning twirls around the twanging melody lines.

He attributes his outlook to the home in which he was raised. “My mother and father told me that you have to do a good thing in the world,” he explains. “That’s why I decided to have love in my songs, and then to have unity in my songs, and to have peace in my songs.” 

All that reached the ears of Joe Alexander, the founder of Music in Exile, a nonprofit record label for refugee musicians in Australia. He set up the recording session for Mr. Koang and seven musicians, ranging from keyboardists to violinists, that led to the making of “Unity.”

“I have never met a man that continues to be so positive, and so warm, despite the most difficult and trying circumstances,” says Mr. Alexander in an email. “As soon as we sat down in the studio, he began dictating parts left, right and centre. He would sing a drum part, followed by a bass line, and a keyboard or guitar melody, and then join in with a completely unique and unexpected thom line or vocal melody.”

Mr. Alexander says that his record label’s mission doesn’t include overtly opposing xenophobia. But, he adds, “ultimately, the space that these musicians will occupy in the Australian scene will help to combat those feelings.”

Sweetness and lament

The final track on Mr. Koang’s album is titled “Te Ke Mi Thile Ji Kuoth Nhial,” a prayer for his family’s safety and provision that he composed for his daughter in 2013 but hadn’t recorded until now. It stood out to Mr. Sartini Garner, the music critic, when thinking about the album. 

“The sweetness and fun of much of ‘Unity’ frames the laments, and that contrast makes songs like ‘Te Ke Mi Thile Ji Kuoth Nhial’ that much more heartbreaking,” he says.

Last year, Mr. Koang and Mr. Biel were finally granted Australian residency. Now they’ve submitted paperwork to bring their families to the Southern Hemisphere. 

“They’re waiting for us,” says Mr. Koang. “We tell them when God finds a way, we will come to you.”

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