Oral and Intangible Heritage

The cultural heritage includes the intangible heritage, which can be defined as the ensemble of cultural and social expressions that characterize communities and are based on tradition. These intangible forms of heritage, passed from generation to generation, are modified through time by a process of collective re-creation. They are ephemeral and therefore particularly vulnerable. In order to safeguard, transmit and revitalize this precious asset of the human cultural treasury, in 1998 UNESCO created a new international distinction entitled 'Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity'.

The proclamation acknowledges cultural spaces and traditional/popular forms of cultural expression that are of outstanding value. A cultural space is defined as a place that brings together a concentration of popular and traditional cultural activities and also as a time for a regularly occurring event. The temporal and physical space should owe its existence to the cultural manifestations that traditionally take place there. A traditional/popular form of cultural expression employs languages, oral literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, costumes, craftwork, and other arts as well as traditional forms of communication and information.

The first two proclamations took place in May 2001 and November 2003 and included five masterpieces from small-island developing nations (Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Tonga and Vanuatu) with a sixth masterpiece in a low-lying continental member of the SIDS-net, Belize. Perhaps significantly, five of these six masterpieces have a major musical component, thus highlighting the central role of music in island communities both in the past and in contemporary life. As an ensemble, these masterpieces also underline the cultural fusion and the regional and interegional linkages that characterize many island situations.

These small-island masterpieces draw attention to some of the very real problems and challenges associated with maintaining the viability and vitality of the world's oral and intangible heritage. Problems and difficulties encountered by individual masterpieces include ethnic discrimination, lack of effective government support, deleterious effects of several decades of missionary work by competing evangelical churches, dwindling interest among younger generations, competition from contemporary types of entertainment, use as symbols of national identity leading to loss of the tradition's deeper symbolic significance and original social function.

On the other hand, these small-island examples also illustrate some of the steps that local and national communities are taking to boost the profile, status and viability of particular traditions: promoting the inclusion of local languages in primary schools, inventory of practising communities and individuals, creation of a community centre including craft museum and workshops, compilation of written and audio-visual documentation, greater legal protection, educational and awareness-raising initiatives at school and in the media, and the organization of festivals and workshops.

  • La Tumba Francesa, Music of the Oriente Brotherhood, Cuba.
  • The Cultural Space of the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit of the Congos of Villa Mella, Dominican Republic.
  • The Maroon Heritage of Moore Town, Jamaica.
  • Lakalaka, Dances and Sung Speeches of Tonga.
  • Vanuatu Sand Drawings.

Note to readers.
Though these five Masterpieces in SIDS were proclaimed in 2001 and 2003 (i.e. prior to the Mauritius International Meeting of January 2005), they are posted here given that the work to preserve and maintain these Masterpieces is ongoing and open-ended.

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