Portrait

On stage and at home with South Sudanese pop star, and refugee, Gordon Koang Duoth. By Nick Buckley.

Gordon Koang Duoth

From the stage of Clayton Hall in Melbourne’s suburbs, South Sudanese pop star Gordon Koang Duoth and his cousin, Paul Biel, play to a crowd of women who have gathered at the front, singing along to every word. It’s the duo’s first Australian tour, January 2013. In that celebratory moment, neither man knew civil war would soon descend upon South Sudan, stranding their wives and children in a Ugandan refugee camp while Gordon and Paul sought refuge in a nondescript Melbourne cul-de-sac, just a few suburbs away.

Their small house near Dandenong is clad with wood grain-embossed white plastic panelling. Inside, the dark, perfumed building is filled with all the tokens of a bachelor pad. Stacks of ephemera are stuffed under the coffee table, including a copy of Gordon’s recent single “Mal Mi Goa” on 12-inch vinyl. It is a nostalgic, heavy talisman. The record was released earlier this year on Music in Exile – a non-profit offshoot of independent label Bedroom Suck Records, which is working to help diaspora musicians establish their careers in Australia.

In South Sudan, Gordon played to crowds of thousands. During his career, he has released 10 albums and toured Europe, Canada, the United States and Africa. Blind since birth, he was taught as a child to play the thom, his signature instrument. Instead of traditional gospel songs, though, Gordon began writing his own music, eventually learning to compose in Arabic and English, as well as his native Nuer language.

Gordon makes music for dancing, with a steady kick drum, bass and synthesisers. His thom twangs with weightless, joyful propulsion. The instrument could be described as an oblong-shaped wooden banjo with no neck, its steel strings running between the end of a wooden frame and the bridge. Pressure applied to the back of the strings by Gordon’s non-strumming hand provides tension to create different notes, which are amplified as they resonate inside the thom’s hollow body.

“My songs are specifically talking [about] peace. They bring the community together,” says Gordon, with his gentle lisp. “They say that working together is very good, working as a team is good. Also, they tell people that love is good, to love themselves.”

It’s a hopeful message born of dire circumstance. South Sudan’s civil war – between the Nuer and the Dinka ethnic groups – has killed almost 400,000 people. After fleeing the war, Gordon and Paul moved between Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, where their families remain.

The cousins tell me about their recent meeting with the Department of Home Affairs to apply for permanent residency. They showed family photographs to their caseworker and explained they need to make Australia home because, in South Sudan, Gordon’s sightlessness means he can’t run from people trying to kill him.

The cousins are members of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation, but finding your place in a new community is never easy. “When we toured Australia the first time, we would get many people come together in one place,” says Paul. “[Now] people are friendly, but they are very busy with their own things. We feel isolated … you try to get each other together but there’s no way. You may get one day a week or one day a month.”

Gordon does get lonely when Paul goes to work – there is no public transport near their house and taxis are unaffordable. But he remains relentlessly optimistic. His is a beaming smile, untrained by mirrors and photographs. He leans in for hugs with little encouragement.

Before the cousins’ set at Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast this year, I asked Gordon what it felt like to be performing on a tiny, cold island at the bottom of the world. He told me he was working on a new song and there was this glint bouncing off his trademark wraparound sunglasses, the hint of a wink.

“The song talks about the freezing cold weather here in Tasmania,” Gordon explained. “I say I need a pretty girl to be close to me … then she can hug me and kiss me and make me warm and be my blanket.”

On stage at the feast, the pair performed alongside a band of Melbourne musicians, Gordon in a thick polar fleece jacket and Paul playing his tabla drum with woollen-gloved hands. Both men have rows of scars running ear to ear across their foreheads, remnants of a coming-of-age ceremony, that catch the red stage-light glow.

Gordon’s throaty upper register twanged like his thom’s metal strings, at one point seguing into kookaburra-like rhythmic laughter. “Stand up and clap your hands,” he sang. The 100-strong crowd obliged and a dance circle swelled, clouds from their frozen cheers filling the winter night.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 20, 2019 as "The beat of community". Subscribe here.

Nick Buckley
is a Melbourne-based music and culture writer.