People in refugees camps across Thailand and Myanmar don’t have opportunities to share their music with the world.
This really strikes a chord with Clarice Swanson. The Tri-City musician traveled through the mountains and jungles of what used to be Burma from November to January to visit villagers and refugee camps in the area.
Swanson runs Meadowlark Voices, and she’s organizing her first ever benefit concert Oct. 23 to raise awareness of musicians and artists remaining in refugee camps.
A live stream from the Mae La refugee camp is offered during the concert. Local artists include the R&B group The Vaughn Jensen Band, country band 8 Second Ride, rapper Xavier Tre Lampkin, Spanish musician Eddie Manzanares and others.
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The show starts at 6 p.m. at Joker’s in Richland. Tickets cost $20 each, $30 for couples and $40 for a family of four.
Swanson used to be a music teacher and wanted to learn more about the music of the Karen people — Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic groups — but sh needed an interpreter and help from the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group.
Smiles and music (are) just amazing door-openers.
Clarice Swanson, Meadowlark Voices
“I had to make a lot of phone calls and be patient,” Swanson said.
Swanson’s first refugee camp visit was near Mae Hong Son. She said she knew of eight more camps along the border.
She said she visited a northern village, known to be a home of the Kayan people, or “long neck” tribe, in January. The women are known to wear several metal rings around their necks.
“It doesn’t raise the neck,” Swanson said. “It’s just an illusion.”
Most tourists who enter the village pay to take photos with the women. Swanson said they resort to this because they have no other jobs.
Once Swanson arrived, her interpreter pointed at Me Paw, a Kayan woman standing on a balcony in her bamboo home. She said the woman looked stoic. The interpreter looked at her and said “This is the woman who wants to hear your music.”
Me Paw’s expression turned into a smile, Swanson recalled. The woman befriended Swanson during the next few days, inviting her to stay in her family’s home.
Me Paw shared her homemade guitar and violin with Swanson. The guitar had a broken string. Swanson went back to her camp and came back a day later with a new string.
“Smiles and music (are) just amazing door-openers,” Swanson said.
Swanson described their music as a cross between Native American music and bluegrass, with sounds similar to Gregorian chants.
“It’s a very fascinating mix,” she said.
Me Paw’s son, Aung Shwe, had no guitar of his own, but knew how to play. It was Swanson’s goal to return and give him a guitar or send him one after she returned to the United States.
She returned and befriended other Karen musicians in the Tri-Cities.
Po Knyaw was born in Myanmar and lived as a refugee in Thailand. He arrived in the Tri-Cities in 2007. He said aid from the United Nations Refugee Agency helped him start a new life here.
He plays guitar, has a wife and three children, and attends church in Richland. He started playing at his church in Thailand when he was 16.
“Sometimes, we wanted to play guitar, but had no guitar,” he said.
Now, Po has his own instrument. He plans to attend the refugee benefit concert to share stories and music with others.
He won’t be one of the main performers, but he said children from his Karen church are going to sing at the concert.
“People will know us,” Po said.
More information on Meadowlark Voices can be found at Meadowlarkvoices.org.