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Do you speak UNESCO ? Music, heritage of humanity

In mid-Decem­ber, Alge­rian raï and Argen­tine cha­ma­mé are expec­ted to join Ira­qi makam, Geor­gian poly­pho­nic sin­ging and the Bar­ran­quilla car­ni­val on the “repre­sen­ta­tive list of the intan­gible cultu­ral heri­tage of huma­ni­ty”. How is this UNESCO recog­ni­tion achie­ved ? What does it bring to artists and their audiences ? We get some ans­wers from the suc­cess­ful sup­por­ters of maloya from Réunion, Mon­go­lian khoo­mei and the Bre­ton fest-noz.

Johan­ni Cur­tet was still a student when he was invol­ved in wri­ting the dos­sier for the inclu­sion of Mon­go­lian over­tone sin­ging, or khoo­mei, on the UNESCO list. “I was stu­dying for a PhD in eth­no­mu­si­co­lo­gy and was still car­rying out research,” he remem­bers. “I was cal­led up by the Mon­go­lian Natio­nal Com­mis­sion for UNESCO. I sug­ges­ted ways to com­plete the file, to cor­rect some over­sights and offer a broa­der view”. “I didn’t know the lan­guage of UNESCO at all,” he now admits. “I had some idea but I’d never immer­sed myself in the notion of intan­gible cultu­ral heri­tage. As I reread the file, I star­ted to won­der. I tried to unders­tand the lan­guage and issues at stake in these files. It took a while before I unders­tood some of the terms, even though they were in French”. 

Nomin­da­ri Shag­darsü­ren, who was the pro­ject mana­ger at the Mon­go­lian Natio­nal Com­mis­sion for UNESCO at the time, recalls the expe­rience : “We tried to coor­di­nate all the dif­ferent groups invol­ved : those who were kee­ping the tra­di­tion alive, resear­chers, offi­cials, deci­sion-makers who work in cultu­ral engi­nee­ring. Over­tone sin­ging is very com­pe­ti­tive. Eve­ryone wants to make their mark. The artists weren’t used to wor­king toge­ther”. The pro­cess sped up in 2009, when Chi­na had “the Mon­go­lian art of khoo­mei sin­ging” lis­ted as the heri­tage of huma­ni­ty. This was an insult to the Mon­go­lians across the bor­der, who regis­te­red their own prac­tice the fol­lo­wing year.

Lis­ting itself repre­sents two years of work,” says Nomin­da­ri. “You have to sub­mit the file in March of the first year. Then it goes back and forth with ques­tions and assess­ments. And then, if all goes well, the lis­ting is consi­de­red com­plete at the end of the fol­lo­wing year”. 


Man­gal­jav – Л. Мангалжав / An Antho­lo­gy of Mon­go­lian Khöö­mii – Монгол Хөөмийн Сонгомол – Pré­sen­ta­tion de l’anthologie en 2 CDs que Nomin­da­ri Shag­darsü­ren et Johan­ni Cur­tet ont publié en 2017


As far as Charles Quim­bert was concer­ned, “pre­pa­ring the file wasn’t tedious”. The Bre­ton sin­ger and cla­ri­net­tist, long-time pre­sident of Das­tum, an asso­cia­tion for the col­lec­tion and pre­ser­va­tion of oral heri­tage, over­saw the inclu­sion of the fest-noz on the UNESCO list and only has fond memo­ries of the pro­cess : “It took time and work but in a posi­tive way. We came toge­ther to do it and tried to be as par­ti­ci­pa­to­ry as pos­sible. We went out to meet people and took their com­ments into account. It was a very fruit­ful method and approach. It allo­wed us to put into words a phe­no­me­non we hadn’t thought that much about. We would go to the fest-noz, dance and have a drink, but we didn’t talk about it. It gave us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to think again about what we were saying, to learn to defend our prac­tices with argu­ments on an inter­na­tio­nal stage”. 

Charles Quim­bert avec Roland Brou et Mathieu Hamon


Howe­ver, when we ask about the concrete results of the fest-noz’s inclu­sion on the intan­gible heri­tage of huma­ni­ty list, Charles Quim­bert remains rea­lis­tic : “Lit­tle has chan­ged for those who dance at a fest-noz or orga­nise it. The num­ber of entries hasn’t increa­sed”. The effect can be seen elsew­here : “People saw it as a recog­ni­tion given to all the dan­cers, musi­cians, orga­ni­sers and all the volunteers”. 

In Réunion too, “the inclu­sion of maloya on the intan­gible cultu­ral heri­tage of huma­ni­ty list shed light on this part of Réunion’s musi­cal culture in the months or years that fol­lo­wed,” explains Guillaume Sam­son, co-author of the essay L’u­ni­vers du maloya : his­toire, eth­no­gra­phie, lit­té­ra­ture [The world of maloya : his­to­ry, eth­no­gra­phy, lite­ra­ture]. “Among the acti­vists and sup­por­ters of this music who did not oppose the lis­ting (and there were some who did), it gene­ra­ted an unpre­ce­den­ted fee­ling of pride and cultu­ral recog­ni­tion,” confirms the anthro­po­lo­gist and eth­no­mu­si­co­lo­gist, who adds, play­ful­ly, “per­haps the fact that Danyèl Waro recei­ved a Womex Award in 2010 isn’t unre­la­ted to the inclu­sion of maloya on the list in 2009!” 

Danyèl Waro, ambas­sa­deur du maloya


While some are concer­ned about a pos­sible folk­lo­ri­sa­tion of musi­cal prac­tices at the end of this pro­cess, Guillaume Sam­son appears confi­dent : “Maloya remains a dyna­mic form of music, both as a genre in its own right and a source of ins­pi­ra­tion for musi­cians who play in other styles (elec­tro, jazz, etc.) on Réunion”. Johan­ni Cur­tet remem­bers that, for UNESCO, “intan­gible heri­tage is a living heri­tage, one that’s chan­ging. The inter­go­vern­men­tal com­mit­tee for the safe­guar­ding of cultu­ral heri­tage recom­mends that nothing should become fro­zen or trea­ted as a museum exhibit”. 


The defi­ni­tion of intan­gible heri­tage is real­ly beau­ti­ful,” adds Charles Quim­bert. “It’s seen as a per­ma­nent re-crea­tion (nothing is fixed); it grants an impor­tant role to the people who keep these heri­tages alive, talks about a fee­ling of iden­ti­ty and com­mu­ni­ty, which is a rare mix in France”. But for the for­mer direc­tor of Bre­tagne Culture Diver­si­té, what has chan­ged the most in Brit­ta­ny since the lis­ting in 2012 “is that now we talk about intan­gible heri­tage without fee­ling like it’s a four-let­ter word. The notion involves reflec­ting on cultu­ral diver­si­ty. Beyond our spe­ci­fic fea­tures, how do we look at the dif­fe­rences of others, how do we live with them ? This is a very contem­po­ra­ry, very topi­cal debate”. 


Per­haps more of us should learn the lan­guage of UNESCO so that we can take part in the discussion…



François Mauger

Born in Parison a Year of the dog, François Mauger was commercial director of a private Burkinabe radio, worked for Lusafrica, Cesaria Evora's record company, co-wrote an essay on fair trade in the music industry, conceived many compilations (such as "Drop the debt" and recently "L'Amazone" for Accords Croisés), co-led the magazine Mondomix, co-directed a documentary on black music (France Ô), was part of the editorial committee of the festival Villes des Musiques du Monde... Besides AuxSons, he currently collaborates with A/R Magazine voyageur.

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