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Music Grant to Explore Cultural Identity

Lowell’s Cambodian-American Heritage Celebrated

Cambodian musicians perform at UMass Lowell
Musicians and dancers from the Angkor Dance Troupe will work with UMass Lowell to help Cambodian-American youths explore their heritage.

By David Perry

When UMass President Robert Caret announced $270,000 in President’s Creative Economy Initiatives Fund grants in July, the largest of eight went to a pair of veterans of UMass Lowell’s Music Department.

Assoc. Prof. Alan Williams and Music Education Coordinator, Prof. Gena Greher, landed $40,000 to develop a program that will work within Lowell’s Cambodian youth community to “create spaces for Cambodian-American adolescents to explore their cultural and artistic heritage.”

The program, which will be developed during the fall semester and implemented at the Stoklosa Middle School in the spring, further accents the relationship between the university and the City of Lowell, home to the nation’s second-largest Cambodian-American population. It will draw together elements from Lowell’s community of Cambodian artists and students and faculty from the university.

Initially, three afternoons a week, one hour will be dedicated to traditional Cambodian music, with members of the World Music Ensemble as instructors. 

The second hour will be spent on traditional dance as facilitated by members of the Angkor Dance Troupe. 

And the last hour will involve the university’s Art Department and a video program in which students will create self-portraits by talking into cameras about their life as Cambodian-Americans in Lowell. 

The community’s identity can be, Williams says, an interesting and sometimes perilous tightrope walk between maintaining old-world tradition and Americanizing a population of young people surrounded by American culture.

But he found plenty of interest in the subject. 

Members of the World Music Ensemble and Angkor Dance Troupe (who teamed up to entertain a crowd of more than 500 at Durgin Hall in early April) had approached Williams about cultural identity in the community. 

“And simultaneously,” he says, “we got a call from the Massachusetts Cultural Council asking about the ensemble and what we were doing. There’s a lot of interest from a lot of people on the subject. We decided there was a missing piece we could work on.”