Hailing from the Upper Nile region of what is now South Sudan, Gordon Koang is a fountain of warmth and joy, immediately accepting of any stranger who finds themselves in his presence. Following Koang's incredible journey of resilience in the face of hardship, we had the pleasure of speaking with him and cousin and lifetime collaborator Paul Biel over the phone about their early days as enigmatic pop superstars in Sudan and rediscovering their voice in the Naarm/Melbourne music community.
Hailing from the Upper Nile region of what is now South Sudan, Gordon Koang is a fountain of warmth and joy, immediately accepting of any stranger who finds themselves in his presence. After seeking asylum in Australia in 2012, Koang, along with his cousin and lifelong collaborator Paul Biel, has gone on to become something of a darling in the Melbourne music community, delighting audiences year round with high energy shows and an irresistible enthusiasm. The pair have settled in the city’s outer suburb of Frankston, where Koang sits in isolation at home while Biel goes out to work each day; he was born blind, and has never seen neither his homeland in the Upper Nile Valley of South Sudan nor his new home on the streets of Melbourne. With his oversized wraparound sunglasses and gleaming smile that is unfettered by his blindness, Koang welcomes all those around him, encouraging them to sit a while and talk and maybe even write a song.
Released back in November through Polyvinyl and Joe Alexander's not-for-profit record label Music in Exile, Koang's twelfth album, Community, shows the eccentric outsider recording with a new band that features Zak Olsen (Traffik Island, ORB), Jesse Williams (Girlatones, Leah Senior), David "Daff" Gravolin (ORB, Hierophants, The Frowning Clouds), and Jack Kong (Gonzo, Baked Beans). The 8-track album came out of the same sessions of 2021's double A-side 12" single, "Coronavirus" / "Disco" at Button Pusher in Preston. Produced by Olsen, Community packs a punch of endless grooves and a fine blend of infectiously bright East African pop and immersive psychedelia, displaying the city's finest musical minds at their best. While his new ensemble is composed of some of Naarm/Melbourne's best underground artists, Koang's music is still closely tied to the people and culture of his home country. In a press statement, Koang revealed that the closing track "Kwai Obala" is named after a woman from his home country. "She is a doctor working in the Upper Nile area of South Sudan, where I am from," Koang said. "I composed the song for her. She is a great doctor. She is doing her best, treating our children."
In his earlier days, Koang self-produced his own tapes, CD's, and music videos and played music in the streets where he gained notoriety and was sometimes dubbed as the "Michael Jackson of South Sudan." Before his remix EP with Sleep D and Andras, in 2020, Koang released Unity, his first full-length album since coming to Australia. Across that album, Koang and Biel spoke in different languages to embed that universal message of integration and multilingualism, while also celebrating his homeland and aiming to bring closure to the victims over the seven-year conflict in South Sudan with "love, peace, and unity." During the recording, Koang and Biel were also joined by another fine lineup of Naarm/Melbourne musicians that included Stefan Blair and Liam Parsons (Good Morning), James Mannix (Peak Twins) and Paul Ceraso (Lizard Queen). Whether he's exhibiting the warmth of Sudanese pop through his uplifting vocal melodies and singing in his native language of Nuer on the groove-digging "South Sudan" or the jangly string from his trademark thom (a four-stringed, wooden banjo-like instrument) on "Stand Up (Clap Your Hands)," Koang expresses good cheer and optimism when sharing his life experiences of civil war, seeking asylum, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Following Koang's incredible journey of resilience in the face of hardship, we had the pleasure of speaking with him and Biel over the phone about their early days as enigmatic pop superstars in Sudan and rediscovering their voice in the Naarm/Melbourne community.
Paperface Zine: Hi Gordon and Paul, it's an honor to be speaking with you! I know you guys have been playing music for over 30 years so take us through your earliest musical memories and what got you into making music.
Gordon Koang: Hello there! I started playing music when I was very young, but I'd say it started when I learned to sing gospel hymns and traditional songs for church. I started learning how to play the thom from my older cousin Luka, who has passed on. Paul loved playing the drums and we both even got to compose songs for our church. This eventually led us further into building a community and a family where I was able to compose my own songs.
Paul Biel: Gordon is very committed to making music. We grew up together and he's always wanted to make people happy and stay together through music. Unity is very important.
PZ: You bring an unending positivity to your music, which is perfectly embodied on your records Community and Unity. What's your recording process like especially now living in Naarm/Melbourne?
GK: On Unity, my goal was to make a powerful gospel record with an emphasis on "love, peace, and unity." There's just always more you can do when you're joined together with others which is what happened on my new album Community. I always seek out an environment where there are a lot of people so I can involve them with my music whether they're cheering or singing along.
PZ: What has it been like exhibiting the warmth of your homeland now living in Naarm/Melbourne and having that energy from the audience reflect your music?
GK: When I come together with people, we share a composition. When I'd do my performance, I would hear people say, "the King of Music is coming!" [laughing]. You know and they would dance and sing which gives me energy and inspires me to go compose and write the next song. I wrote the single "Coronavirus" in the early stages of lockdown as a response to my own and others' personal experiences of isolation. People were suffering a lot during lockdown and I wrote that song in an effort to counsel them and offer my condolences. It has a lot of meaning and is telling listeners to be hopeful.
PZ: That's what I love most about the track and I especially love the video. 2020 and 2021 were such difficult times for everyone, but you returned with a single that encouraged listeners to stay positive. The recording happened after two weeks quarantined in a hotel room together right?
GK: Yep, since our national tour and festivals we were set to play got canceled in 2021, we went to visit our family in Uganda at the last minute. Paul and I received our Australian permanent residency so we were able to go and see them. It was very difficult, but we knew the risks we were taking. It's just at the time, we didn't see them for five years. The impact on the pandemic was very different in my homeland compared to Australia because they didn’t have the same services and couldn't just stay indoors all day. It was difficult for many communities to get food.
PB: Yeah being isolated in that hotel room for 14 days was not easy. It's not easy, let me tell you, friend. You're in isolation, there's no fresh air, you sleep in the same room, wake up in the same room, and eat in the same room. There's no change of environment which makes it difficult to keep a fresh mind.
PZ: Definitely not easy but you both managed it quite well it seems! Even during rough times, this latest single exhibits your guys' good cheer and courage, which has become your trademark. I see you worked with a star-studded lineup of underground musicians including Jesse Williams, Zak Olsen, Daff Gravolin, and Jack Kong on your latest album Community. What was it like bringing those musicians and inviting them into your spirited Sudanese pop world?
GK: When Paul and I first came to Australia, the first thing we did was tell people that we are musicians and met up with fellow musicians to share music together. I love Australia, it's like living in another world. There's a really great music scene here in Victoria and I think it's because they enjoy all cultures from rock 'n' roll to reggae. Those musicians in particular have made some of my favorite records in this city and there's always good energy when we're all together.
PB: More ideas get passed around when people are together which can be really beautiful. We love to be with the musicians here in Victoria who are so wonderfully talented and we're just as much fans of them as they are of us.
PZ: You were finally able to embark on the Unity tour last year! You have an amazing live band that's comprised of Tobi Oladele, Robyn Poppins, Mannix Floweday, Kumar Shome, and Selene Messinis. What do you want your listeners to take away from your live performances?
PB: We want to bring attention to what we are doing with this musical style and simply bring people and genres together. I see some folks here dig into one musical and I'd like to break that when I'm playing onstage. I want those people to be exposed to something new.
GK: I just want them to enjoy the music. We do a lot of different versions of our songs live, sometimes just based on the audience. That's why I wrote the lyrics, "Stand up and clap your hands, don't keep quiet, move your body, come up here."
Community is out now through Polyvinyl Record Co. and Music in Exile.