Gordon Koang - Unity LP
South Sudanese star Gordon Koang reflects and celebrates the liminal life of a refugee on his first album recorded in Australia, where he's lived in asylum from his home country's civil war since 2014. 

The king of South Sudanese music has been living in a suburb of Melbourne since 2014, a refugee of his home country’s civil war. Blind since birth, Gordon Koang was a prolific writer and star in South Sudan, with ten LPs to his name. He was in the middle of an international tour when he decided not to return to home, fearing for his safety as members of his ethnic group, the Nuer tribe, were being killed in pogroms. Koang did not release music for a half-decade in Australia, until connecting with Music in Exile, a nonprofit that links refugee musicians with the country’s network of indie venues and infrastructure.

Unity is his first new album since leaving South Sudan, and his first attempt to articulate what it means to be an artist who exists between states. For Koang, this isn’t just a geographical issue. Across Unity’s eight songs, he calls on his home country’s many ethnic groups to find common ground, celebrates the bond between audience and musician, and longs for an eventual reunion with his wife and children, who he hasn’t seen since arriving in Australia. The combination of Koang’s South Sudanese thom and the group of local indie rockers who make up his band produces an energy to match the music he made back home—a pleasant surprise, even if they sometimes struggle to figure out how to use it. (South Sudanese percussionist Paul Biel, Koang's cousin and fellow refugee, also contributes.)

The thom is a harp-like instrument similar in sound and appearance to the East African krar. Koang plays it as both a rhythmic and melodic instrument, making it sound something like a Delta blues guitar or a detuned kora. His melodies unfurl in long, legible lines that he doubles with his vocals. Though his earlier music was largely backed by drum machines and synthesizers, he knows how to command a live ensemble, egging them along with his instrument and daring them to keep up. His bandmates step cleanly into the tight pockets he creates, and they move along at a parade-march pace.