12 elements of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding UNESCO

arabian-falconryABU DHABI, Oct. 1st, 2009: 12 elements of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding in eight countries were identified by UNESCO’s Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Heritage during its current 4th session in Abu Dhabi.

3 elements were nominated by China alone. These are Qiang New Year festival, Traditional design and practices for building Chinese wooden arch bridges and Traditional Li textile techniques: spinning, dyeing, weaving and embroidering. China yesterday had 22 nominations approved for UNESCO’s other Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 13 additions to the same list came from Japan. These were among a total of 76 cultural treasures given protection status by UNESCO on Wednesday.

The inscription of the said cultural practices in need of urgent safeguarding in Belarus, China, France, Kenya, Latvia, Mali, Mongolia and Viet Nam, which were examined by independent experts, inaugurate UNESCO’s List of Intangible Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

The Committee, which was chaired by UAE’s Awadh Ali Saleh Al Musabi, considered that the viability of these cultural elements is endangered, despite the efforts of the communities or groups concerned. Following the inscription, States concerned will implement specific safeguarding plans, as indicated in their nomination files. Intangible cultural elements in need of urgent safeguarding will be eligible for financial assistance from the Fund established to this end.

christmas-tsarsFollowing is a detailed list of the 12 newly inscribed elements: Belarus / Rite of the Kalyady Tsars (Christmas Tsars) The Kalyady Tsars (Christmas Tsars) is a ritual and festive event celebrated in the village of Semezhava in the Minsk region of Belarus. Typical Belarusian New Year celebrations take place according to the old’ Julian style calendar and are combined with distinctive local performing arts. About 500 men participate annually in the event, of which seven are chosen to play the roles of �Kalyady Tsars’ in the national historical-religious drama �Tsar Maximilian’. Additional comic characters of the dzed (old man) and baba (old lady), played by a young girl and boy respectively, interact with the audience. During the drama, �tsars’ visit the local houses of unmarried girls to give comic performances and receive good wishes and awards. The procession continues into the night, lit by torchlight. The incorporation of dramatic allusions to aspects of modern life as well as to ethnic communities, groups and individuals has established the drama as a vivid example of cultural diversity. At present, the ceremony, although popular with older residents, is diminishing in popularity with the younger generation. This may result in a gap in transmission of knowledge regarding the production of costumes, instruments, interior decorations and particular dishes associated with the event – intangible heritage that may not outlast the present generation of residents.

China / Qiang New Year festival The Qiang New Year Festival, held on the first day of the tenth lunar month, is an occasion for the Qiang people of China’s Sichuan Province to offer thanks and worship to heaven for prosperity, reaffirm their harmonious and respectful relationship with nature, and promote social and family harmony. The solemn ritual sacrifice of a goat to the mountain is performed by villagers clad in their finest ceremonial dress, under the careful direction of a shibi (priest). This is followed by the communal sheepskin-drum and salang dances, led by the shibi. The ensuing festivities combine merrymaking with the chanting of traditional Qiang epics by the shibi, singing and the drinking of wine. At the end of the day the heads of families preside over family worship during which sacrifices and offerings are made. Through the festival, Qiang traditions distilling history and cultural information are renewed and diffused, and social behaviours are reinforced, the community expressing respect and worship towards all creatures, the motherland and their ancestors. Participation in the festival has declined in recent years due to migration, declining interest in Qiang heritage among the young and the impact of outside cultures, but the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake that destroyed many of the Qiang villages and devastated the region put the New Year festival at grave risk.

chinese-wood-arch-bridgeChina / Traditional design and practices for building Chinese wooden arch bridges Wooden arch bridges are found in Fujian Province and Zhejiang Province, along China’s south-east coast. The traditional design and practices for building these bridges combine the use of wood, traditional architectural tools, craftsmanship, the core technologies of �beam-weaving’ and mortise and tenon joints, and an experienced woodworker’s understanding of different environments and the necessary structural mechanics. The carpentry is directed by a woodworking master and implemented by other woodworkers.

The craftsmanship is passed on orally and through personal demonstration, or from one generation to another by masters teaching apprentices or relatives within a clan, in accordance with strict procedures. These clans play an irreplaceable role in building, maintaining and protecting the bridges. As carriers of traditional craftsmanship the arch bridges function as both communication tools and venues.

They are important gathering places for local residents to exchange information, entertain, worship and deepen relationships and cultural identity. The cultural space created by traditional Chinese arch bridges has provided an environment for encouraging communication, understanding and respect among human beings. The tradition has declined however in recent years due to rapid urbanization, scarcity of timber and lack of available construction space, all of which combine to threaten its transmission and survival.

China / Traditional Li textile techniques: spinning, dyeing, weaving and embroidering The traditional Li textile techniques of spinning, dyeing, weaving and embroidering are employed by women of the Li ethnic group of Hainan Province, China, to make cotton, hemp and other fibres into clothing and other daily necessities. The techniques involved, including warp ikat, double-face embroidery, and single-face jacquard weaving, are passed down from mothers to daughters from early childhood through verbal instruction and personal demonstration. Li women design the textile patterns using only their imagination and knowledge of traditional styles. In the absence of a written language, these patterns record the history and legends of Li culture as well as aspects of worship, taboos, beliefs, traditions and folkways. The patterns also distinguish the five major spoken dialects of Hainan Island. The textiles form an indispensable part of important social and cultural occasions such as religious rituals and festivals, and in particular weddings, for which Li women design their own dresses. As carriers of Li culture, traditional Li textile techniques are an indispensable part of the cultural heritage of the Li ethnic group. However, in recent decades the numbers of women with the weaving and embroidery skills at their command has severely declined to the extent that traditional Li textile techniques are exposed to the risk of extinction and are in urgent need of protection.

France / The Cantu in paghjella: a secular and liturgical oral tradition of Corsica The paghjella is a male Corsican singing tradition. It combines three vocal registers that always enter the song in the same order: segonda, which begins, give the pitch and carries the main melody; bassu, which follows, accompanies and supports it, and finally terza, the highest placed, which enriches the song. Paghjella makes substantial use of echo and is sung a capella in a variety of languages including Corsican, Sardinian, Latin and Greek. As both a secular and liturgical oral tradition, it is performed on festive, social and religious occasions: in the bar or village square, as part of liturgical masses and processions and during agricultural fairs. The principle mode of transmission is oral, largely through observation and listening, imitation and immersion, commencing first as part of young boys’ daily liturgical offices and then later at adolescence through the local Church choir. Despite the efforts of its practitioners to revitalize its repertoires, Cantu in paghjella has gradually diminished in vitality, due a sharp decline in intergenerational transmission caused by emigration of the younger generation and the consequent impoverishment of its repertoire. Unless action is taken, Cantu in paghjella will cease to exist in its current form, surviving only as a tourist product devoid of the community links that give it real meaning.

Kenya / Traditions and practices associated to the Kayas in the sacred forests of the Mijikenda The Mijikenda include nine Bantu-speaking ethnic groups in the Kaya forests of coastal Kenya. The identity of the Mijikenda is expressed through oral traditions and performing arts related to the sacred forests, which are also sources of valuable medicinal plants. These traditions and practices constitute their codes of ethics and governance systems, and include prayers, oath-taking, burial rites and charms, naming of the newly born, initiations, reconciliations, marriages and coronations. Kayas are fortified settlements whose cultural spaces are indispensable for the enactment of living traditions that underscore the identity, continuity and cohesion of the Mijikenda communities. The use of natural resources within the Kayas is regulated by traditional knowledge and practices that have contributed to the conservation of their biodiversity. The Kambi (Councils of Elders) acts as the custodians of these Kayas and the related cultural expressions. Today, Mijikenda communities are gradually abandoning the Kayas in favour of informal urban settlements. Due to pressure on land resources, urbanization and social transformations, the traditions and cultural practices associated to the Kaya settlements are fast diminishing, posing great danger to the social fabric and cohesiveness of the Mijikenda communities who venerate and celebrate them as their identity and symbol of continuity.

Latvia / Suiti cultural space The Suiti are a small Catholic community in the Protestant (Lutheran) western part of Latvia. The Suiti cultural space is characterized by a number of distinct features, including vocal drone singing performed by Suiti women, wedding traditions, colourful traditional costumes, the Suiti language, local cuisine, religious traditions, celebrations of the annual cycle, and a remarkable number of folk songs, dances and melodies recorded in this community. Older forms of extended family structures are still common here, and such families, where the transfer of skills from generation to generation takes place, are important bastions of Suiti cultural heritage. The synthesis of pre-Christian traditions and religious rituals has created a unique blend of intangible cultural heritage in the Suiti community. The pillar of Suiti identity – the Catholic Church – successfully recovered following the Soviet period and as a result, the Suiti cultural space has experienced a gradual renaissance. However, today only a few, mostly old people, have a good knowledge of Suiti cultural heritage, and thus there is an urgent need to disseminate this knowledge and to involve more people in its preservation by recovering elements preserved only in written documents, film archives and museum depositaries.

Mali / The Sank mon: collective fishing rite of the Sank The Sank mon collective fishing rite takes place in San in the S gou region of Mali every second Thursday of the seventh lunar month to commemorate the founding of the town. The rite begins with the sacrifice of roosters, goats and offerings made by village residents to the water spirits of the Sank pond. The collective fishing then takes place over fifteen hours, using large and small mesh fishing nets. It is immediately followed by a masked dance on the public square featuring Buwa dancers from San and neighbouring villages who wear traditional costumes and hats decorated with cowry shells and feathers and perform specific choreography to the rhythms of a variety of drums. Traditionally, the Sank mon rite marks the beginning of the rainy season. It is also an expression of local culture through arts and crafts, knowledge and know-how in the fields of fisheries and water resources. It reinforces collective values of social cohesion, solidarity and peace among local communities. In recent years, the rite has seen a decrease in popularity that threatens its existence, contributory factors including ignorance of the event’s history and importance, a gradual decrease in attendance, occasional accidents during the event itself and the degradation of the Sank pond due to poor rainfall and the effects of urban development.

Mongolia / Mongol Biyelgee: Mongolian traditional folk dance The Mongol Biyelgee: Mongolian Traditional Folk Dance is performed by dancers from different ethnic groups in the Khovd and Uvs provinces of Mongolia. Regarded as the original forebear of Mongolian national dances, Biyelgee dances embody and originate from the nomadic way of life. Biyelgee dances are typically confined to the small space inside the ger (nomadic dwelling) and are performed while half sitting or cross-legged. Hand, shoulder and leg movements express aspects of Mongol lifestyle including household labour, customs and traditions, as well as spiritual characteristics tied to different ethnic groups. Biyelgee dancers wear clothing and accessories featuring colour combinations, artistic patterns, embroidery, knitting, quilting and leather techniques, and gold and silver jewellery specific to their ethnic group and community. The dances play a significant role in family and community events such as feasts, celebrations, weddings and labour-related practices, simultaneously expressing distinct ethnic identities and promoting family unity and mutual understanding among different Mongolian ethnic groups. Traditionally, Mongol Biyelgee is transmitted to younger generations through apprenticeships or home-tutoring within the family, clan or neighbourhood. Today, the majority of transmitters of Biyelgee dance are elderly, and their numbers are decreasing. The inherent diversity of Mongol Biyelgee is also under threat as there remain very few representatives of the distinct forms of Biyelgee from different ethnic groups.

Mongolia / Mongol Tuuli: Mongolian epic The Mongolian Tuuli is an oral tradition comprising heroic epics that run from hundreds to thousands of verses and combine benedictions, eulogies, spells, idiomatic phrases, fairy tales, myths and folk songs. They are regarded as a living encyclopaedia of Mongolian oral traditions and immortalize the heroic history of the Mongolian people. Epic singers are distinguished by their prodigious memory and performance skills, combining singing, vocal improvisation and musical composition coupled with theatrical elements. Epic lyrics are performed to musical accompaniment on instruments such as the morin khuur (horse-head fiddle) and tovshuur (lute). Epics are performed during many social and public events, including state affairs, weddings, a child’s first haircut, the naadam – a wrestling, archery and horseracing festival – and the worship of sacred sites. Epics evolved over many centuries, and reflect nomadic lifestyles, social behaviours, religion, mentalities and imagination. Performing artists cultivate epic traditions from generation to generation, learning, performing and transmitting techniques within kinship circles, from fathers to sons. Through the epics, Mongolians transmit their historical knowledge and values to younger generations, strengthening awareness of national identity, pride and unity. Today, the number of epic trainers and learners is decreasing. With the gradual disappearance of the Mongol epic, the system of transmitting historic and cultural knowledge is degrading.

Mongolia / Traditional music of the Tsuur Tsuur music is based on a combination of instrumental and vocal performance – a blending of sounds created simultaneously by both the musical instrument and the human throat. Tsuur music has an inseparable connection to the Uriankhai Mongolians of the Altai Region, and remains an integral part of their daily life. Its origins lie in an ancient practice of worshipping nature and its guardian spirits by emulating natural sounds. The Tsuur is a vertical pipe-shaped wooden wind instrument with three finger holes. Simultaneously touching the mouthpiece of the pipe with one’s front teeth and applying one’s throat produces a unique timbre comprising a clear and gentle whistling sound and a drone. The Tsuur is traditionally played to ensure success for hunts, for benign weather, as a benediction for safe journeys or for weddings and other festivities. The music reflects one’s inner feelings when travelling alone, connects a human to nature, and serves as a performing art. The Tsuur tradition has faded over recent decades as a consequence of negligence and disrespect of folk customs and religious faith, leaving many locales with no Tsuur performer and no families possessing a Tsuur. The forty known pieces preserved among the Uriankhai Mongolians are transmitted exclusively through the memory of successive generations – a feature making this art highly vulnerable to the risk of disappearing.

Viet Nam / Ca tr singing Ca tr is a complex form of sung poetry found in the north of Viet Nam using lyrics written in traditional Vietnamese poetic forms. Ca tr groups comprise three performers: a female singer who uses breathing techniques and vibrato to create unique ornamented vocal sounds, while playing the clappers or striking a wooden box, and two instrumentalists who produce the deep tone of a three-stringed lute and the strong sounds of a praise drum. Some Ca tr performances also include dance. The varied forms of Ca tr fulfil different social purposes, including worship singing, singing for entertainment, singing in royal palaces and competitive singing. Ca tr has fifty-six different musical forms or melodies, each of which is called th? c?ch. Folk artists transmit the music and poems that comprise Ca tr pieces by oral and technical transmission, formerly, within their family line, but now to any who wish to learn. Ongoing wars and insufficient awareness caused Ca tr to fall into disuse during the twentieth century. Although the artists have made great efforts to transmit the old repertoire to younger generations, Ca tr is still under threat due to the diminishing number and increasing age of practitioners.