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Cultural Exchange Celebrates and Preserves Maine's Diversity

Five years ago, the state of Maine was the most racially homogenous state in the union. But now, the northeastern tip of New England is home to immigrants from scores of ethnic groups from around the globe, who came looking for new lives. The Center for Cultural Exchange is one group that tries to ensure that the artistic traditions of their old lives are not lost.

The music of Cambodia might seem out of place amid the whitewashed church steeples and narrow Yankee lanes of Portland Maine. But it's just one exotic sound you might hear being enjoyed on the city's Monument Square.

It comes from a locally made CD, one of scores of diverse projects of the Center for Cultural Exchange, a non-profit agency that also produces concerts, dance performances, traveling tours, and classes.

According to Phyllis O'Neill, CCE's director, "Our main idea is to use performance to make contact and communication and connect with people from all over the world."

Until the mid 1990s, Portland's population was overwhelmingly white and Christian. Today, you can hear 57 different languages in Portland's high school and choose from over a dozen ethnic restaurants, which compete for business downtown. While ethnic cuisine is flourishing here, Bau Graves, CCE's artistic director, says there's a need to help new arrivals retain the other artistic riches of their homelands.

"We have parents who say to us 'Our kids don't even have an opportunity to reject their heritage because they see so little of it that they don't even have the opportunity to make a comparison,'" says Mr. Graves. "We try to provide somewhat of a countervailing force… To offer each community both access to its own artistry, then to provide a very public forum where the public can come and see whatever it is that makes their culture vibrant and exciting and relevant to us here in the 21st century."

Indeed, with its banks of computers and highly skilled staff, the Center for Cultural Exchange is able to provide a 21st century infrastructure where grants are written, performance venues are booked, and CDs are recorded, produced and distributed.

And sometimes, it's not just Americans who learn something new. Mr. Graves says that the burgeoning Sudanese refugee community is one example.

"There are 16 Sudanese tribal groups represented here in Portland," Mr. Graves says, "And some of those tribes have been enemies with each other for millennia, and some of them come from parts of Sudan that are so distant from each other that they didn't even know of each other's existence until they were arbitrarily thrown into the cauldron of Portland Maine and all of a sudden they are supposed to be a Sudanese community. And we had many meetings just talking about what it meant to be a Sudanese!"

But the Center is not focused exclusively on refugees and new immigrants. Mr. Graves said that it works with many so-called "old-line" immigrants as well. "So we are constantly working (with) the Irish community, the French Canadian community, the Armenian community, the Greek community, and the Italian community. These are all longstanding populations in the Portland area that have been here for 100 years or more…" Sometimes that means bringing in artists who still live in the "old country." After the CCE sponsored a concert tour around New England for musicians from southern Europe, they produced a CD of traditional songs from throughout their region.

The Center for Cultural Exchange also works extensively with regional talent, such as Franco-Americans from just across the border in Quebec, Canada. Bau Graves says fiddler Don Roy is a particular favorite for local audiences. "Don Roy is a master fiddler," says Graves. "He has got an absolutely unlimited repertoire. He probably knows more tunes than he even knows he knows."

Of the scores of traditional cultures represented by the Center for Cultural Exchange, some, like African American gospel choirs, are familiar, while others are virtually unknown for now. The Center for Cultural Exchange is dedicated to making sure they also have a place in the mosaic that is America today.