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UNESCO: Organization Singles Out Cultural Masterpieces To Save 'Humanity's Heritage'


By Andrea Boyle

With the proliferation of television and the Internet, some fear the world's increasing globalization may threaten indigenous cultural treasures. The UN's Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) this week named 28 cultural traditions to its list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Traditions from the three Baltic nations, as well as Iraq, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan were recognized in an effort to prevent their loss.

Prague, 14 November 2003 (RFE/RL)) -- Cambodians performing pirouettes, Mexicans remembering the lives of their departed loved ones, and tens of thousands of Baltic choir members singing in unison now share the same distinction.

Last week, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named 28 cultural traditions to its list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. A jury of professors and experts chose the 28 traditions from a pool of 56 nominations. This is the second time UNESCO has recognized cultural treasures with the designation. Its inaugural list named 19 treasures in 2001.

Cesar Moreno of UNESCO's Intangible Heritage Section outlined the importance of the organization's efforts: "The idea of the proclamation is to highlight some specific forms of cultural expressions which are outstanding, and they need some kind of specific attention for the safeguarding for the future generations."

The list highlights festivals, such as the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday; dance, including the Royal Ballet of Cambodia; as well as theater and numerous musical traditions.

Azerbaijan's mugam music was recognized by UNESCO. Mugam is a highly structured musical system that still lends itself to a great degree of improvisation. Unlike other forms of music, mugam cannot be written down in a definitive form. Instead, masters personally train students in the art of improvisation.

Mugam involves singing, as well as musicians playing the kamancha, a stringed instrument whose sound closely resembles a violin, and the tar, a stringed instrument that resembles a lute.

Mugam recordings and performances are widespread in Azerbaijan, but UNESCO says ideological and commercial pressures are working to transform this heritage into a fixed repertoire performed from sheet music or imitated from standardized recordings. This poses a serious threat to its improvisational nature.

Similarly, the future of another musical tradition, shashmaqom music from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is threatened. Shashmaqom, which literal means "six poems," is considered musical literature. Standard musical notation records only the basic framework of shashmaqom, which dates back more than 1,000 years.

As with mugam, shashmaqom requires specially trained teachers. Since the 1970s, many of shashmaqom's best-known performers have emigrated from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to diaspora communities in Israel and the United States.

Renowned Tajik shashmaqom composer Tolib Shahidi spoke to RFE/RL about the importance of the UNESCO designation. "I think UNESCO gave very needed support, and it's very good for the musicians and for the singers. And I hope that if UNESCO will support [shashmaqom], it will make it better for the future of this music," Shahidi said.

While most of UNESCO's masterpiece distinctions were awarded to traditions from single nations, two went to multinational groupings. The first was shared by Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania received the other in recognition of their song and dance celebrations.

Each Baltic country hosts its own festival of these folk arts. Latvia and Estonia hold their celebrations every five years, Lithuania every four. The festivals last several days and are typically attended by upwards of 10,000 dancers, between 20,000 and 30,000 singers, and at least the same number of spectators.

Ojars Kalnins is director of the Latvian Institute, a nonprofit organization established to promote Latvian culture and society. He explained the importance of the festivals to the nation's cultural heritage: "The act of singing is probably the central aspect of our culture. It's a tradition that goes back thousands of years. Our whole history is basically an oral history based on folk songs. The tradition of the song festival grew out of that."

Kalnins says Latvia's song and dance festival, like those in the other Baltic states, is the country's most important cultural event. Choirs and dance troops spend years practicing. "Choir directors in Latvia are like rock stars in other countries," he said. "They are nationally known figures. They are highly respected, and they have quite a job to bring all this about."

Latvian performers, dressed in traditional folk costumes, converge on Riga in the summer to showcase their talents. Shows include solo acts, large choreographed dance numbers, and multiharmony choir pieces. Kalnins says the Baltic song festivals are in no danger of dying out. They continue to draw many participants and large crowds.

Many of the other traditions are not so lucky, and UNESCO envisions its award not only as a recognition of their value but as a step toward protecting them from dying out. A criterion for the award requires states to make commitments to protect the traditions. If the countries show competency in this respect, UNESCO will work with them to find funding.

UNESCO awarded the masterpiece distinction to Iraq's regional version of mugam music, which resembles that found in Iran, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. With some of Iraq's national cultural artifacts having been destroyed in the war, the UNESCO distinction may help preserve one Iraqi mugam treasure before it, too, is lost.
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