Refugee musician reaches out across the globe
The latest ‘craze’ among the hundreds of thousands of people who make up the global Karen diaspora is a young man who lives on the Melbourne’s western outskirts and spends
much of his time volunteering in a local garden.
But 22-year-old Hba Hae’s first passion is music and his latest home-made pop videos have just racked up one million YouTube hits.
Under the stage name ‘Star Boy’ Hba has become an idol to young Karen in communities and refugee camps across the globe.
Using a borrowed camera, he has filmed, performed, directed and edited a string of clips of his own songs which have gone viral online and given him a following that extends to Karen communities in the US, UK, Malaysia, Holland, Sweden, Australia as well as in the camps along the Thai border.
Hba grew up in one of these camps where his parents fled when civil war came to their village in Burma. The Burmese Government has persecuted the Karen hill-tribe people since 1949 and there are an estimated 150,000 Karen living in the camps.
He spent most of his life in the teeming Mae La refugee camp among 50,000 other displaced Karen before coming to Australia as a refugee in September 2013.
“Life was tough in the camp,” Hba says. “In summer there was not enough water and sometimes not enough food.”
“We went to school but we could not leave the camp,” he said, speaking through an interpreter.
Hba says music was an escape for him during these difficult times and he often entertained his fellow Karen with his music.
“When I wrote a sad song – maybe about losing someone – it sort of reflected the sadness of the Karen people. But when I wrote a happy song, it made people happy and maybe they would forget their problems for a time,” he said.
But it is only since coming to Australia that Hba can see an opportunity to follow his dream of a career in music.
“A few years ago in the camp there was no chance to have a band or make music properly. We had no money and no equipment. I had to play and sing by myself,” Hba said.
“Now in Australia I have more chance to play music and to start working towards my dream of playing music full time,” he said.
Hba says he started singing and writing music in the camp when he was 16.
“I was listening to the local radio stations and to all sorts of music and I started writing and singing my own music,” he said.
“Music is very important to me and I want to improve my singing. I go to sleep each night singing and thinking about music and wake up each morning the same,” Hba said.
“When I get a free day I just want to sing and write music,” he said.
And like almost every other Australian musician, Hba wants to crack the American market.
“I hope to become more popular as a Karen singer and I hope to become famous with Karen people living in the US and across the world as well as in the camps, where I came from,” he said.
Hba also recognises the influence he has on other young Karen, many of whom are marginalised and vulnerable.
“I also want to be a good person; a good example to other young Karen people,” he said.
Hba says he finds his inspiration where most other young songwriters do; in love and loss, family and art.
But he also writes songs about his people’s troubles.
“It is important to me to write about what is happening in Burma and what is happening to the Karen people,” Hba said.
Living with his parents, three brothers and two sisters in Hoppers Crossing, west of Melbourne, Hba is studying to improve his English and doing volunteer work in the gardens at Werribee Park.
Werribee Park’s head ranger James Brincat says Hba is a superstar in the making.
“Hba is known to Karen people across the globe and his music is obviously very popular,” James said.
“It’s amazing to think a million people have watched his latest video clip – filmed here at Werribee Park – yet here he is weeding and digging in the garden and living in very humble circumstances in the local community.
”Hba’s story sums up the Karen people. They are such generous, gentle people who value family, friendship and music,” James said.
AMES Senior Journalist