Friday, December 24, 2010


I'm totally stoked about UNESCO at the moment! The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has a program to safeguard the "intangible cultural heritage" of humanity -- oral traditions, social practices, craftsmanship, and other elements of culture that are not in bricks and mortar. UNESCO has worked with cultures worldwide to create a list of over 200 (and counting) such elements -- a few requiring urgent safeguarding, others not. Political factors like conquest or globalization may impinge on such culture, and, as UNESCO points out, "this intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history." On the website, you can view text, slides, and videos on all of these elements of culture. I've picked a few that relate to storytelling, and will highlight them in this post and the next one. Today's two practices are remarkable for their continuity over time.

Let's start with the video above, "The Mystery Play of Elche," performed every August at the Basilica of Santa Maria, in the old city of Elche, in the Valencia region of Spain. Like the other practices I'm posting about here, this play is not considered to be in urgent need of safeguarding; it is a centuries-old church tradition that started with the Pope's approval, and takes place in a relatively politically stable region. The play is about the death and Assumption of Mary, and is performed on two stages in the Basilica -- the "earthly" stage on the floor, and the "celestial" stage near the ceiling, on which it looks like child actors hang rather precariously! ("Spiderman" actors who've been injured in performance -- eat your hearts out!)  

Next up, here's a video about Kumiodori, a form of musical theater in Okinawa, Japan. The tradition began when the area was the quasi-independent Ryukyu Kingdom (1429 to 1870s). When the first king was installed, he welcomed a visiting Chinese delegation -- the so-called "herald party" -- with performances of music, dance, and drama. However, it wasn't until the 13th king appointed a minister of hospitality, Chokun Tamagushiku, that the Kumiodori tradition was formally begun. Chokun wrote five plays for the herald party of 1719, and it took off. Other plays were added to the tradition later, and they started to be performed not just for herald parties, but for other, more ordinary community festivities. The Kumiodori tradition lost stature after the fall of the Ryukyu kingdom and later World War II, but has been resurrected by the Japanese government.  

In the next post, I'll feature a couple oral traditions that UNESCO is working to safeguard.

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