David Starfire Speaks on Releasing a Charity Album for Burmese Refugees

Featuring Alex Grey, William Close, and Burmese musicians.
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Featuring Alex Grey, William Close, and Burmese musicians.
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Based out of Los Angeles and San Francisco, David Starfire is a celebrated electronic producer and multi-instrumentalist with a psychedelic sound, one that draws heavy influence from the culture of India and musical forces from around the globe. 

With Karuna, a 10-track album effortlessly bridging Western and Eastern instrumentations, Starfire sought a very specific source of musical drive that stemmed from the ongoing and often shunned Burmese refugee crisis. 

From this struggle came inspiration, and from this inspiration came a desire to not only donate the profits of Karuna to benefit Burmese refugees, but actually work with Burmese musicians to truly immerse himself in their culture. 

Alongside William Close, Govinda, Alex Grey, Android Jones, and many more, Starfire was able to bring the Karuna project to life and create a truly memorable release. 

The album is now available for free or by donation on Bandcamp, with all proceeds going to education programs for Burmese refugees. In addition, you can stream the release below and read an extensive interview with David about the creative process and journey behind Karuna

What is the significance of the album title Karuna?

Karuna translates to compassion and is a word used quite often in Buddhist cultures. It's about having compassion for others and it resonates with me because I feel that sums up the meaning of the album. 

Partially because it's a benefit album where all the profits go to the Thai Freedom House to provide education to Burmese refugees, but it also sheds some light on the refugee situation and hoping others will join me in my quest to help them. 

What inspired you to collaborate and donate to Burmese refugees?

I was in Northern Thailand in 2012 with my partner and she was doing research on Burmese refugees and that's when I became aware of how desperate their situation was. I was captivated with their culture and instruments and wanted to help them and let the world hear their magnificent music. 

No other electronic artist had ever collaborated with Burmese musicians, so it was a challenge that I decided to take on.

How has the Burmese culture changed your perspective of the world around you?

I feel blessed and have so much gratitude after seeing how little they have and we have so much here in the west. Most people don't know there has been an ongoing civil war since 1962 even though Burma is now "democratic." Even simple things that we take for granted like clean water and healthy food. 

Some don't have the freedom of living outside of a refugee camp because they live in another country illegally and can't go back to their homeland without fear of persecution or death. There were some people I met that had not seen their family in 15 years. Others narrowly escaped as their entire family was killed by the military. 

I would have to say that even though they didn't have much, they were still very strong willed and positive people, mainly because they are very deeply spiritual people with lots of hope.

What was it like mixing indigenous Burmese instruments with modern electronic dance music?

It was exciting to be on the brink of a new frontier, but there also were many obstacles such as the primitive nature of the instruments themselves, different scales/tunings and sometimes had to use translators. When I used a translator, the words "click track" and "drum loop" are useless to translate because the translator or musician have no concept of those things. So you then just have to improvise and figure out the best way to do things. 

The instruments were often crude and hand- made like the gamelan and xylophones, so they didn't really sound that great. The instruments that could be tuned like the harp and violin usually had imperfect intonation and were somewhat impossible to tune decently. On top of all of that, the overall tuning, scales and temperament were quite different than I had experienced before. So was quite an uphill battle, but I learned a lot and grateful for the experience. Now I feel like I can make anything sound decent!

In “The One,” what is the overall message being portrayed both through Alex Grey’s spoken words and your production? 

When I read the words, it connected with me deeply as I believe it will with others. The words describe how we are all connected and that we are one giant organism, all seen and unseen wrapped into one. I'm fascinated with quantum physics and the 11th dimension theory, that part in interstellar where you can send subtle messages through space time. I believe that consciousness is connected to everything as well and not limited to what we see and feel in this physical reality.

How were you able to get Alex to speak on a track, and what was the creative process like from start to finish? 

I was with Alex Grey on Halloween at the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in upstate NY and we were having a conversation about different experiences we had about being in a space where we felt connected to everything and everyone. 

I had an idea about recording him talking about this subject and he mentioned that he had a poem (or psalm) from his Art Psalms book that he had recorded a few months earlier and I was grateful to him that I could use it. It works beautifully for the album and I had my friend Joaqopelli play his angelic flute as accompaniment.

Could you tell us about the journey that took place in your life while making the album?

It was quite an intense journey and I also had my family with me as well, so it was quite interesting to navigate. I traveled to many places on buses, vans, motorcycles, scooters, mostly to the border zones and temples. Every time I hear the songs, it brings me back to those places, people and their energy that went into the music. 

Music is all that some of them have and they express themselves in a way that I feel is lost in western culture. They play their heartfelt songs because it's what is inside of them, not the lure of money and fame, which seems to have replaced the emotional vibrational essence of songs in western culture.

What was the most emotional moment you experienced during the creation of Karuna?

The entire journey of the album was an emotional rollercoaster, and I'm still on it. I view all the experiences as one experience all together, but I will share some with you. There was a young Karen (Burmese state) harp player named Doo Plout, that I had recorded in Mae Sot, a border town that is the main entrance to Burma from Thailand. We were recording in his very simple shack with my friend Jeff Warner videotaping and I would ask him to explain the meaning of each song before he played it. 

To hear his words of how he missed his homeland and how the military was taking away their culture was heartbreaking. Another time, I recorded with a young Shan (Burmese state) vocalist and had asked him to do the same. He would talk about how he missed his family and had not seen his parents for many years and had left when he was very young. 

I had recorded a well known Karen harp player named Chi Suwichan and he talked about the spirit of his people called Y'wa and decided to create a spoken word song with an environmental soundscape of field recordings. I visited Cave Lod, where I had a surreal experience, and recorded the sounds inside the cave of bats and flowing water that are also used in that song. I had the opportunity to attend a beloved monk's funeral near the border of Burma and it was a 3 day festival. 

The love for this monk and the stories we heard about him were astounding and there were marvelous temple musicians everywhere. I could write a book on my experiences, and maybe one day I will!

What was the synergy like between you and Android Jones as he created Karuna’s artwork? 

I've been friends with Android for over 10 years now and grateful for our friendship. I was very blessed to have him create the art for the album and was overwhelmed by the stunning masterpiece that he created. I had a long conversation with him about my experiences and the meaning of the songs as well as the social benefit aspect. 

I had sent him photos and videos of my journey as well as a rough draft of the songs. I also gave him websites and information about the situation of the Burmese refugees. With all of this information, he tapped into his artistry and created something transcendent.

Where do you seek inspiration from on a daily basis?

I draw inspiration from several sources and they vary from day to day. I try and meditate when I get up and when I go to sleep every night and things will come through and will remember them and write them down. Other times, I just close my eyes when playing my guitar or keyboard and just let my fingers and spirit take over.

I like to hear what others are creating and listen to some of my favorite artists and music that is unfamiliar. I was really into Sha'bi from Egypt for a bit and now been getting into Gqom music and really feeling the underground sounds from South Africa these days.

Now that you’ve released the album, what are you most looking forward to about the future? 

Releasing the album has taken a huge weight off of my shoulders, but doesn't mean it's time for a vacation. Now that the album is finished, I'll be touring and giving talks about my journey making the album and the importance of activism and giving back. I have quite a few festivals like Lightning in a Bottle and club dates such as my release party March 2nd in LA  at Zanzibar and March 5th in Toronto

I'm also working on loads of new remixes and tracks with the likes of hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa and on the other side of the spectrum with revolutionaries like William Close and the Earth Harp.