Rane Prak
Ethnomusicology – Research Focus: Hybridization of Traditional and Contemporary Arts in Cambodia and Khmer Diaspora

My name is Rane Prak. I was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and immigrated to the United States with my family when I was young. I grew up in a small town in Southeast Texas called Woodville. Engaging with various performing arts and storytelling helped me to navigate my immigrant identity. I have a broad performing arts background comprising diverse musical traditions. I learned Khmer folk songs from my aunt, a professional singer, and self-taught myself Khmer traditional dance. I am a Khmer classical and folk dance student at the Modern Apsara Company (MAC) based in Long Beach. In undergrad, I joined the Korean Music Association (KMA). KMA hosts meetings to discuss and appreciate Korean culture and perform Korean dance at various cultural events throughout campus. I played the clarinet, oboe, and saxophone in a band throughout my middle and high school years. My band, consisting of students from diverse cultural backgrounds, bonded because of our shared love for music. I am in the Music of Thailand and Bali ensembles at UCLA’s School of Music. Music and dance were impactful activities that encouraged me to explore how the performance arts have the power to build community by connecting people from different backgrounds.

I pursued my undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin, with double majors in Humanities Honors BA and Asian Studies BA and a minor in the Korean language. As an undergraduate, I was part of the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, which supports first-generation students in applying for graduate school. I have written an article for their research institute about Khmer stories from the oral tradition catering to each generation. My undergraduate honors thesis explored how Khmer artists tell stories through songs in the Cambodian Original Music Movement (COMM). The COMM refers to a new generation of Khmer musicians that signifies a vibrant cultural phenomenon in the post-Khmer Rouge era. My thesis drew on Stuart Hall’s theory regarding flexible identities to provide insights into contemporary Cambodian history through the lens of cultural production. I used Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s hybridization theory to explore how blended traditional and modern music bridge cultural producers and consumers of different generations. One song, “Time to Rise,” combines the Khmer chapei genre, performed by folk musician Kong Nay, with contemporary rap performed by hip-hop artist, VannDa. I also refer to Vijay Prashad’s alternative understanding of the nation-state to explore how collaborations between artists of different cultural identities continue decolonial movements and promote empowering narratives. I am motivated to pursue my research because it is a way for me to heal and confront the traumas that my family and I have faced.

I am a graduate student from the department of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The interdisciplinary Ethnomusicology Ph.D. program will enrich my graduate research in exploring how disparate modes of Khmer storytelling traditions, including songs, retain their powerful effect as embodied ways of sharing and reshaping cultural identity. I plan to observe how Khmer artists in the Cambodian diaspora communities at Long Beach and Cambodia create new traditions, leading to the hybridization of the mainland and diaspora culture. My proposed graduate research project explores the Cambodian Art Renaissance as a cultural phenomenon, referring to a new generation of cultural producers who create works fusing Khmer artistic elements with modern styles. My goal is to explore how cultural and artistic formations in Cambodian diaspora communities contribute to an ongoing negotiation of Khmer cultural identities and traditions. My work will explore how the Cambodian Art Renaissance takes place in Long Beach, the largest Khmer diaspora community. For instance, dancers from the Modern Apsara Company (MAC) will collaborate with Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung, artist and film producer praCh Ly, and the Long Beach Symphony in the 2023 Khmerasopora musical. I hope to explore how the Cambodian Art Renaissance provides insights into the intersecting cultural and artistic identities of singers, musicians, and dancers who live in the Cambodian diasporic communities as they tell their stories through the performing arts. I seek to understand how performance art bridges people from different communities and promotes narratives regarding the Cambodian diaspora by centering my research on cultural producers and their stories. Specifically, I want to observe how Cambodian American artists tell their stories of immigration and reflect on their refugee experiences, intersecting identities, and layered histories through performing arts and cultural production. I want to understand how the Cambodian Art Renaissance, as a space, allows different generations of cultural producers and consumers to enter into productive dialogue on collective trauma and find new avenues of expression for the future. My project may benefit the Khmer American community, scholars, educators, and students by showing how the recovery and revitalization of culture and performing arts in the Cambodian Arts Renaissance is a form of healing in the Khmer American community.


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