Even over the phone in a pandemic, Gordon Koang radiates warmth and joy. It’s impossible not to be charmed by the Melbourne-based musician’s sunny disposition – a personality that Australian music fans and industry alike have gravitated towards since 2018. Now, with the release of his new album ‘Unity’ this Friday (August 14), Koang marks a milestone – his 11th studio album and his first since arriving in Australia in 2014.
A musician from the Nuer tribe of the Upper Nile region (what is now South Sudan), Koang is well known and loved in his homeland for composing music that speaks to the heart of his people. “I was born blind and when I got older, I asked my mother what I would do to make people happy because I could not see,” he tells NME of his path to music. “[I felt] I didn’t have anything to give. My mother told me, ‘My son, you don’t have a way to give things back, but what you can do is plan your future; you can follow that plan’.”
For Koang, his musical talents come from a higher power. “I thank God a lot in my music,” he says. “If you come and you don’t have something to leave for the coming generation, things get lost. If you do something in the time you are in this world, people will remember you.”
“All of my music is to make people happy, to have unity, to have peace”
Koang began composing music in church at a young age before moving on to creating his own material in the late 1990s. He now performs in three languages: English, Arabic and his mother tongue, Nuer. He plays the thom, a traditional Nuer stringed instrument. “It’s very difficult to learn,” Koang says; his own thom has been modified for his own style of playing. “I taught myself and my mind until I knew it very well. To be a musician and compose songs for the country, that is something I [knew I] could do.”
Koang has recorded 10 studio albums, which were distributed across Africa, which helped him earn him the title of South Sudan’s ‘King of Music’. In 2010, he and Paul Biel – his cousin and musical collaborator – began establishing an international presence for themselves by touring in Canada and North America.
When news of civil conflict in South Sudan reached the duo at the end of 2013, they were already in Australia. Instead of returning, both Koang and Biel decided to remain in the country, seek asylum and work to raise money to relocate their families. In the five years that would follow, Koang and Biel called Australia home, yet remained in limbo as they waited to be granted residency – which was finally confirmed in 2019.
Recording his first single with Melbourne non-for-profit label Music In Exile in 2018, Koang soon became a live draw. Since being granted residency last year, he has performed around the country with Biel and his new band, playing the likes of Meredith Music Festival, Strawberry Fields and Brunswick Music Festival. All the while, he developed his debut Australian release – the fittingly titled ‘Unity’.
The eight tracks on ‘Unity’ aim to change perspectives on achieving peace on a global scale. Koang is a believer of love regardless of religion, personal or cultural backgrounds, and a strong champion of building strength in a global community that more generations to come can benefit from.
“Unity is very important in this world,” Koang explains. “One hand cannot clap, but two hands can bring the sound. They bring the sound together. I call it ‘Unity’ because if the Nuer, Aussie, Indian, Asian… all the communities in the world, if we work together we can grow.”
From Koang’s first single recorded in English, the catchy ‘Stand Up (Clap Your Hands)’, to journey-describing ‘South Sudan’ and the upbeat ‘Tiel E Nei Nywal Ke Ran (We Don’t Have A Problem With Anyone)’, ‘Unity’ is a compelling and irresistible listen. Koang draws on his own life and experiences throughout the record: He composed ‘Kone Ke Ran’ for a counsellor in South Sudan who comforts the distressed, and on ‘Asylum Seekers’ speaks directly to those anxiously enduring the drawn-out, isolated experience of seeking asylum in a new country.
“When you come you’re waiting and you don’t have a job, you don’t have any friends, or anything to do,” Koang explains. “There is a lot of stress. I want to comfort [asylum seekers] as they are waiting and make them happy. All of my music is to make people happy, to have unity, to have peace. When you become part of the country, you will be with your people.”
“One hand cannot clap, but two hands can bring the sound”
The release of ‘Unity’ and its messages of peace and joy could not be more timely. Victorians are now hunkering down under COVID-19 restrictions which effectively cut them off from the rest of Australia, and Koang hopes to heal and uplift people who are doing it tough right now in the pandemic. “We need to share it with all communities to enjoy,” he says. “It’s very good and much needed at this time.” To promote the album, Koang says they will “play [it] online” from his house. “We’ll set it up so people can watch me. If they need someone to explain it to them, then I will be able to talk to them and tell them what the songs mean.”
Koang is practically a musical veteran, and ‘Unity’ is his 11th album – but he also knows that for many in Australia, it will serve as an introduction to him and his music. He’s ready to embrace his growing audience, and already has new songs in the works.
“When I came, people did not understand why I came from overseas as a blind man. That’s why I released this album, I want people to understand me very well,” he says. “As you can hear on the songs ‘Stand Up’ and ‘Asylum Seeker’, I’m showing the people in Australia that I am a musician and the music is a friend to everyone.”
Gordon Koang’s ‘Unity’ is out August 14