Los Angeles–/San Francisco–based producer David Starfire has been fusing Eastern and Western music for more than a decade, mixing breakbeats, bhangra, psy-trance and more on such futuristic albums as Bollyhood Bass and Ascend. But even for such a devoted acolyte of global grooves, his latest project, Karuna, takes cultural cross-fertilization to new extremes.
Karuna, out March 1, marks the first time a Western electronic artist has created an entire album in collaboration with musicians from Burma (also known as Myanmar). Even more remarkably, all of the musicians on the album are refugees from a civil war that has dragged on for decades; most of the refugees are part of oppressed ethnic groups such as the Karen and the Shan. They are now based in camps and towns in northern Thailand, a remote corner of Asia to which Starfire traveled in order to meet with and record such performers as stroh violinist Len Pong, Karen harp players Doo Plout and Chi Suwichan, vocalist Gonlao and temple drummers Wat Pa Pao and Wat Tung Salee.
The album, which Starfire funded through Kickstarter, also features contributions from many notable non-Burmese artists, including William Close and the Earth Harp Collective, hammer dulcimer player Jamie Janover, violinists Govinda and HÄANA, and even visionary artist Alex Grey, who recites an excerpt from his book Art Psalms on the track "The One."
Karuna will be available via Starfire's Bandcamp page on March 1, but you can hear the track "Tenaku," featuring Doo Plout and William Close, exclusively below. Proceeds from the album's sale will go to Thai Freedom House, a nonprofit learning and resource center for Burmese refugees and other minority groups living in northern Thailand.
We asked Starfire a few questions via email to learn more about how this unique project came together.
How did you first become aware of the plight of Burmese refugees and get involved with helping their cause?
I visited northern Thailand in 2012 and my partner was involved with Burmese refugees as part of her Ph.D. research. It was then that I became aware of the situation in Burma. Most people don't realize that there has been a civil war since 1962 that is still ongoing. There are refugees that are 30-plus years old that grew up in a refugee camp and that is the only world that they know. It's really a terrible situation and I felt that I had to do something to help them.
What was your visit to the refugee zones in Thailand like? Can you describe that part of the world?
It's like another existence in itself; the refugees are somewhat content being there, maybe because they know the alternative to going back is rising persecution or even death. They are very poor, but still in good spirits and have food and shelter provided by NGOs, but the conditions are not very sanitary. There are towns like Mae Sot, where it's right on the border and many refugees live there, but live there illegally. Actually most refugees live illegally in Thailand and work in construction camps and in kitchens. It's kind of like [how] immigrant workers are here from Mexico; the difference is that they can go back to Mexico without fear.
Were most of the musicians on the album familiar with Western electronic music? Was this the first time for any of them, working on project like this?
Some of the musicians that I worked with were somewhat familiar with electronic music but didn't know any names of artists. There were some musicians that didn't know any artists at all, and some knew of only Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. This was the first time that the musicians had worked with an electronic artist and, for some, their first time ever being recorded. On the other side of the coin, most westerners haven't heard Burmese music or know about their instruments, and I hope that this album will shed some light on their culture.
How long have you known Alex Grey, and how did you approach him to do vocals on "The One"?
I've known Alex Grey for 10 years now and we are good friends. I performed at the last Halloween party at CoSM [the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors, Grey's art sanctuary in upstate New York] and talked to him about the project and was hoping he could get involved. He had recently recorded "The One" for an audio book for Art Psalms and let me use it for this album. I'm so blessed and honored that he wanted to be a part of this project and grateful for our friendship.
How did you record William Close's Earth Harp on "Tenaku"?
William and I have been working on recordings for the past couple of years and there will be a track on his new album. He was familiar with the project and I asked him if he would be interested in playing on one of the songs and he said that he was happy to be a part of the project. When we were working for recordings for his album, we spent some time recording "Tenaku" for my album. Tenaku is the name for the harp played by Karen people of Burma and is the lead instrument on that song by a young musician and activist named Doo Plout.
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Besides buying the album, what else can fans do to help Burmese refugees and Thai Freedom House?
Yes, 100% of the profits are going to Thai Freedom House to educate Burmese refugee children, and giving back to communities is part of my ethos. If someone visits Chiang Mai, Thailand, they can volunteer there and they can also donate supplies and money directly at this link. Also they have a cafe called Freebird Cafe that has delicious Burmese food and all the money goes to Thai Freedom House.
Luminous Movement is hosting an album release party for David Starfire at Zanzibar in Santa Monica on Wednesday, March 2. Tickets and more info.