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What is ICH?

According to the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the intangible cultural heritage (ICH) - or living heritage - is the mainspring of our cultural diversity and its maintenance a guarantee for continuing creativity.

The Convention states that the ICH is manifested, among others, in the following domains:

・ Oral traditions and expressions including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
・ Performing arts (such as traditional music, dance and theatre);
・ Social practices, rituals and festive events;
・ Knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
・ Traditional craftsmanship.

The 2003 Convention defines ICH as the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills, that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage.

The definition also indicates that the ICH to be safeguarded by this Convention:

・ is transmitted from generation to generation;
・ is constantly recreated by communities and groups, in response to their environment, their interaction with nature, and their history;
・ provides communities and groups with a sense of identity and continuity;
・ promotes respect for cultural diversity and human creativity;
・ is compatible with international human rights instruments;
・ complies with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, and of sustainable development.

The ICH is traditional and living at the same time. It is constantly recreated and mainly transmitted orally. It is difficult to use the term authentic in relation to ICH; some experts advise against its use in relation to living heritage.

The depository of this heritage is the human mind, the human body being the main instrument for its enactment, or - literally - embodiment. The knowledge and skills are often shared within a community, and manifestations of ICH often are performed collectively.

Many elements of the ICH are endangered, due to effects of globalization, uniformization policies, and lack of means, appreciation and understanding which - taken together - may lead to the erosion of functions and values of such elements and to lack of interest among the younger generations.

The Convention speaks about communities and groups of tradition bearers, without specifying them. Time and again it was stressed by the governmental experts who prepared the draft of the Convention that such communities have an open character, that they can be dominant or non dominant, that they are not necessarily linked to specific territories and that one person can very well belong to different communities and switch communities.

The Convention introduces, by establishing the Representative List, the idea of "representativeness". "Representative" might mean, at the same time, representative for the creativity of humanity, for the cultural heritage of States, as well as for the cultural heritage of communities who are the bearers of the traditions in question.

1. Oral traditions and expressions including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage

The domain of oral traditions and expressions encompasses an enormous variety of forms including proverbs, riddles, tales, nursery rhymes, legends, myths, epic songs and poems, charms, prayers, chants, songs, dramatic performances and so on. They transmit knowledge, values and collective memory and play an essential role in cultural vitality; many forms have always been a popular pastime. Although language is a core element of the intangible cultural heritage of many communities, language per se is not promoted under the 2003 Convention. It is, however, to be safeguarded as a vehicle of the ICH.

Some types of expressions are common and can be used by the entire community; some are used by restricted groups, for instance among adult women only. In many societies, performing oral traditions is a highly specialized occupation, with professional performers often held in high esteem as the guardians of collective memories. Professional performers are found in all regions. The griots or dyeli from Africa are well known; it is less known that in countries such as Germany or the U.S.A. there are today hundreds of professional storytellers.

Oral traditions and expressions are typically passed on by word of mouth, which usually entails variation, in lesser or greater degree. Their enactment involves a combination-differing from genre to genre, from context to context and from performer to performer-of reproduction, improvisation and creation. This combination renders oral traditions and expressions particularly vibrant and attractive but also sometimes fragile, as their survival depends on an uninterrupted chain of transmission.

While language is essential to most forms of ICH, it is especially so for the domain of oral traditions and expressions: specific languages shape and embody their very content. The loss of a language inevitably leads to the loss of oral traditions and expressions, but at the same time it is in those oral expressions themselves, and in their social and cultural enactments, that a language is best safeguarded, rather than in any dictionary, grammar or database. Languages live in songs and stories, riddles and rhymes, and thus the safeguarding of languages and the safeguarding of oral traditions and expressions are two aspects of the same task.

2. Performing arts

The expressions central to the performing arts include especially vocal or instrumental music, dance, and theatre, but there are indeed many other traditional forms such as pantomime, sung verse, and certain forms of storytelling. Performing arts include a diversity of cultural expressions that together testify to human creativity and that are also found in different degree in many other domains of intangible heritage.

Music is of course the most often encountered of the performing arts, found in every society and in most cases an integral part of other performing art forms and other domains of ICH such as rituals, festive events, or oral traditions. We find it in the most diverse contexts: profane or sacred, classical or popular, closely connected to work, entertainment, even politics and economics that may call upon music to recount a people's past, sing the praises of a powerful person, or accompany or facilitate commercial transactions. The occasions on which it is performed are equally varied: marriages, funerals, rituals and initiations, festivities, all kinds of entertainment, or other social practices.

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