“Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”: A new list by UNESCO

Ancient language, song, dance and performance cannot be kept alive simply in a showcase or tended by curators. This list was produced to highlight their fragility


Unesco has for the first time awarded the title “Masterpieces of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” to 19 outstanding “cultural spaces or forms of expression.” The “masterpieces,” which are all under threat, were chosen by an 18-member international jury, appointed by the Unesco director-general and chaired by Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo.

The Intangible initiative is intended to complement Unesco’s World Heritage List of natural and cultural sites. As jury member Ugné Karvelis, Lithuania’s ambassador to Unesco, explained: “In 1972, when the World Heritage Convention was adopted, the world was still very Eurocentric and heritage was seen as just churches and castles. A first step towards a broader concept was the inclusion of natural landscapes. Today, heritage is more people-oriented.” A further list of Oral and Intangible Heritage masterpieces will be proclaimed in May 2003.

The Garifuna language, dance and music (Belize): The Garifuna originate from African slaves rescued from exile on the island of St Vincent in the 17th century. A population of 11,500 still live in 10 communities in Belieze. Their language (a blend of African and Caribbean) is taught in only one Belizean village.

The oral heritage of Gelede (Benin): For a century, the Yoruba-nago, Fon and Mahi communities have practised harvest rites and dances. Technological development and tourism jeopardise the future of the Gelede.

The Oruro Carnival (Bolivia): The 10-day Andean carnival before Lent involves 30,000 dancers and musicians, and attracts over 400,000 people. The decline of mining and traditional agriculture, deforestation and migration threatens the culture of Oruro.

Kunqu Opera (China): The country’s oldest theatrical tradition, involving 24 scenes and 12 actors. Since 1990 Kunqu performances have only been staged sporadically

The Gbofe of Afounkaha (Ivory Coast), the music of transverse trumpets of the Tagbana community: Side-blown trumpets which are used in rituals. Industrialisation and rural exodus are jeopardising the continued creation of the Gbofe trumpets.

The cultural space of the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit of the Congos of Villa Mella (Dominican Republic): The Brotherhood represents communities of mixed descent who believe in the Holy Spirit, which they associate with percussion instruments. Social, cultural and economic changes endanger the Brotherhood.

The oral heritage and cultural manifestations of the Zápara people (Ecuador and Peru): The Zápara people, who live in the Amazonian rainforest, for four centuries have fought to retain their ancestral knowledge and way of life. The population is less than 300 people, only five of whom are fluent in the language.

Georgian polyphonic singing (Georgia): Chakrulo is a song using metaphors and complex musical ornamentation. Its origin is linked to the cult of wine, dating back to the eighth century. The practice of Chakrulo is jeopardised by rural exodus, industrialisation and the influence of Western music.

The cultural space of ‘Sosso-Bala’ in Niagassola (Guinea): The sacred percussion instrument Sosso-Bala is only played by the patriarch on Islamic New Year and for certain burials. The Sosso-Bala is threatened by rural migration, difficult living conditions in Niagassola, trafficking in artifacts and frequent fires.

Kuttiyattam Sanskrit theatre (India): A form of sacred theatre performed in temple sites from the 12th century. derives from ritual sacrifice. The transmission of skills is hereditary, and it is continued by members of only five Chakyar families.

Opera dei Pupi, Sicilian puppet theatre (Italy): Opera dei Pupi emerged in Sicily in the 19th century and has been in decline since the development of the entertainment industry and television.

Nôgaku theatre (Japan): Dating back to the eighth century, Nôgaku comprises two types of drama: Nô (supernatural heroes become human to tell a story) and Kyôgen (comic dialogues in a medieval language).

Cross crafting and its symbolism in Lithuania (Lithuania): The traditional crafting of wooden crosses originated in the 15th century. There are 200 cross-crafting masters. This community is endangered by modernisation and youth migration.

The cultural space of Djamaa el-Fna Square (Morocco): A cultural crossroads in Marrakesh, dating back to the 11th century, the square attracts storytellers, acrobats, fire-eaters, snake-charmers and fortune-tellers. Traffic, pollution, city development plans and tourism are taking their toll.

Hudhud chants of the Ifugao (Philippines): The Hudhud is chanted during the sowing and harvesting of rice and during funeral wakes. Dating back to the seventh century, it comprises 40 episodes and often takes four days to recite. The hudhud was linked to the manual harvesting of rice and it has been replaced at funeral wakes by television and radio.

Royal ancestral rite and ritual music in Jongmyo shrine (Korea): Jongmyo, the Confucian shrine in Seoul, hosts a unique ritual on the first Sunday in May, organised by descendants of the royal family. The symbols of Yin and Yang are represented by 64 dances. Modernisation is leading to declining interest in the rite.

The cultural space and oral culture of Semeiskie (Russia): The Semeiskie are a community of Old Believers, living in villages in the isolated Transbaikal Region. Their way of life reflects 16th- and 17th-century folk culture. The traditions are threatened by political, economic and cultural transformations.

The mystery play of Elche (Spain): A sacred drama of the death, assumption and crowning of the Virgin, performed since the 15th century in the Basilica of St Mary of Elche in Valencia with permission from the Pope. The play involves 300 volunteers.

The cultural space of the Boysun district (Uzbekistan): Boysun is one of the oldest inhabited places in the world, on the road from Asia Minor to India. It preserves traces of ancient cultures and religions, including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Islam. The cultural policy of the Soviet era ignored the traditional arts of Boysun.

The unesco definition of oral and intangible heritage

The totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community, expressed by a group of individuals and recognised as reflecting the expectations of a community in so far as they reflect its cultural and social identity; its standards and values are transmitted orally, by imitation or by other means. Its forms are, among others, language, literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, customs, handicrafts, architecture and other arts. In addition to these examples, account will also be taken of traditional forms of communication and information.

How can it be protected?

Unesco sets out specific requirements for its Member States for the protection of endangered customs and languages. These include teaching in schools, setting up national folklore councils to represent interest groups, providing moral and economic support for individuals and institutions studying, cultivating or holding items of folklore; encouraging events such as fairs, festivals and exhibitions; encouraging press coverage; encouraging regions, municipalities, etc, to establish jobs for folklorists to co-ordinate activities in the region, establish museums and libraries to keep documentation relating to folklore.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Our fugitive heritage'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 120 December 2001