“God gave me music. I love it so much.”
Gordon Koang tells us about the incredible journey that led to his involvement with Melbourne label Music In Exile.
In 2013, with their country in the middle of a civil war, South Sudanese musician Gordon Koang and his cousin Paul Biel fled their home to seek asylum in Australia. In South Sudan, Koang is a household name. He plays a wooden box-shaped instrument called the thom and sings songs of “peace, unity, and love”.
Since relocating to Australia, Koang has been put in contact with Music In Exile; a not-for-profit initiative aimed at creating space for artists working in culturally or linguistically diverse communities in Australia. Through Music In Exile, Koang has released a string of singles and is preparing to release a new album. While he was last in Sydney touring his latest single Asylum Seeker, we caught up with Gordon Koang to chat about the incredible journey that has led him here.
This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 13. Pre-order your copy here.
HAPPY: You grew up in South Sudan and you’ve been playing the thom since you were eight-years-old, is that correct?
GORDON: Yes, that is true. I started playing the thom in 1988. At that time, I was eight years old. When I knew how to play the thom well, I went to church. I played all the songs in church. Then I decided to compose my own songs.
HAPPY: Have you always wanted to be a professional musician?
GORDON: Yes. This is the work I chose because in South Sudan there are no good opportunities for people like me. I am blind. I was born blind. There are no good opportunities for blind people to work or go to school, so I decided to play music. I chose that when I was a very small boy. I said “I want to play the music,” then I chose the thom.
HAPPY: Why did you choose the thom? Was there any reason?
GORDON: Yes, there is a very big reason. The first thing is that I needed something to do. I knew a man who knew how to play the thom very well, so I asked him how he did it. He showed me the way. He put my hand up to the thom, and then I decided to be a musician. But the big reason is this… brother, once we go from this earth, we do not come back again. When we come from our mothers and fathers, we come for one time. We are only on this earth for one time. When we go to the God, we do not come back again. I still have my hands, and my arms, and my legs, so I needed to do something. God gave me music. I love it so much.
HAPPY: And you made your first thom by hand, is that right?
GORDON: Exactly! My first thom I made by hand. That one had five strings, but when I became a professional, I wanted the thom to have six strings.
HAPPY: You’ve had a new thom made since you moved to Australia. How did the Australian carpenter know how to make it? Did you show him?
GORDON: Ahh, they are very clever. I gave them my thom and they took a photo. William, the man who made my thom, he is a very professional man. It is a very nice thom like my old one. It is very fantastic. A new thom for a new life in Australia.
HAPPY: When did you start your career as a full-time musician?
GORDON: I started to write my own songs in 1991. I was a very small boy. I composed the songs, they were very good. Then I went to the radio and the people loved my music. That’s when I became a professional musician in South Sudan. In 2010, I decided to go to the rest of the world. I went to the USA, I went to Canada, then I came to Australia in 2012, then I went back to South Sudan, then in 2013 I decided to stay in Australia.
HAPPY: Could you tell us a bit about what’s happening in South Sudan right now and why you had to leave?
GORDON: Yes. South Sudan has a lot of problems. The war happened in 2013, that’s why I seek asylum in Australia. Because of the war, everything is destroyed. Everyone ran to different parts of the world. I decided to come to Australia. Australia is my second home now. I love Australia. My time in South Sudan was good, but it has changed a lot. The president is not a good person. He has destroyed the country.
HAPPY: You’re currently touring your new single Asylum Seeker. What’s your message to any asylum seekers still waiting on their permanent protection visa?
GORDON: I tell them that they should be patient. Australia is a very good place and the people are very good. The government is working very hard for them. The problem is that people are always coming. A lot of them are overlooked. I waited for my residency for five years, I just got it now. I tell them to be patient. Wait properly. Don’t hurry. Don’t do any bad things, do your best. You will become a resident just like me. That is my advice.
HAPPY: Are your family any closer to getting to Australia?
GORDON: My family’s situation is very difficult, but they will come to Australia because I got my residency. My lawyer worked very hard for me. She is very good. My children and family will come. We will be comfortable here. But right now they’re suffering. They’re really suffering.
HAPPY: How did your relationship with Joe and Music In Exile begin?
GORDON: When we came to seek asylum here in Australia, we met the people in Melbourne, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. They are the ones who connected me with Joe Alexander. Now we are going very well. They connected me with my full band, and I love them. I love this band. The boys are very, very, very, very clever. When I show them the music, they do it well.
HAPPY: Have you listened much to Good Morning?
GORDON: Yes, I have listened to Good Morning.
HAPPY: What do you think?
GORDON: They are very, very good. They do it very well.
HAPPY: As you mentioned before, you were quite a well-known musician overseas before you came to Australia. Has your music changed since relocating to Australia?
GORDON: Yes, when we did it in South Sudan we had six girls and five boys who were dancers, plus all the people who play in the band with me. There were 18 people. It’s a bit different here. But soon we will be doing it similarly.
HAPPY: Finally, you’ve said that you will personally teach anyone the thom. Does this offer still stand?
GORDON: Yes, if anyone needs to learn the thom, we will teach them. They will know it very quickly. I know the way, and I will give it to them.
Words by Bill Robinson
Photos by Dani Hansen