Accessibility links

Breaking News

UNESCO Lists 'Intangible Heritage' Traditions

A Flamenco dancer
A Flamenco dancer

Or download MP3 (Right-click or option-click and save link)

BARBARA KLEIN: I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we tell about recent efforts by the United Nations to honor and protect different cultural traditions from around the world. U.N. experts meeting in Nairobi, Kenya recently announced this year’s cultural protection list.


BARBARA KLEIN: One of the many aims of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization is to protect culture in all of its many representations. Its World Heritage program identifies threats to valuable natural and cultural places around the world. But what about cultural expressions that are not a set place, building or collection of objects?

Since two thousand three, UNESCO has also worked to protect what it calls the “intangible heritage” of humanity. It defines intangible heritage as living traditions that are passed on from one generation to another. These include spoken traditions, festivals, performing arts, social ceremonies and cultural knowledge. UNESCO recently announced fifty-one additions to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

STEVE EMBER: Several of this year’s intangible heritage traditions are about food. For example, France made the list for its rich traditions involving the cooking and enjoyment of food and drink. A traditional French meal includes several wines and dishes including meat, cheese and dessert. The importance of the meal in France is also about bringing together family and friends to honor special occasions.

Mexico was also chosen for its food traditions. Many cooking methods in that country are ancient. The three main foods in Mexican cooking include corn, beans and chili. The foods are linked to special methods of farming and also to special celebrations.

Spain, Greece, Italy and Morocco were recognized for their collective cooking traditions, described by UNESCO as the Mediterranean diet.

An example of Croatian gingerbread
An example of Croatian gingerbread

Croatia is listed for its gingerbread tradition. This sweet bread is made from flour, sugar, baking soda and spices. It takes skill and speed to make gingerbread. Each baker paints the gingerbread and can add pictures and messages to the design. Gingerbread can be made to observe special events such as weddings.

BARBARA KLEIN: Other intangible traditions take place at festivals. For example, the oil-wrestling tradition in Turkey takes place in Edirne. Men wear pants made out of leather. Their bodies are covered in oil. They compete to be the best fighter. The winner gets a golden belt.

In Luxembourg, a festival in the ancient town of Esternach involves prayer, song and dance. As many as eight thousand dancers take part in this event that dates back to the year eleven hundred.

STEVE EMBER: This year’s list of intangible heritage includes several traditions from Iran. These include the skill of making floor coverings. Important places for carpet-weaving include Fars and Kashan. Another Iranian tradition is Ta’ziye. This performance art tells stories about religious and historical events through music, song and movement. Pahlevani is a form of physical training for self-defense. But it is about more than movement. The tradition includes knowledge of religious, moral and social teachings.

A carpet weaver in Fars, Iran
A carpet weaver in Fars, Iran

BARBARA KLEIN: Many of this year’s cultural traditions involve music.


Flamenco from Spain combines music, dance and song. This intense music expresses emotions such as joy, grief or pain. Flamenco dancers use their feet to pound complex rhythms. Guitar music adds to the emotional performance. Flamenco is performed in many areas of southern Spain, including Andalusia.

Marimba music and singing are performed in the South Pacific area of Colombia. The area’s African ancestry influences this music.


Men and women sing to the beat of hand-made musical instruments including marimbas, rattles and drums.

The music is sung for special events including religious worship or to mourn someone’s death.

STEVE EMBER: The Angklung musical instrument from Indonesia is made out of bamboo. Each instrument produces only one musical sound. So, several musicians are needed to play a song. Angklung music is often played to mark important events such as rice planting and harvesting.

Ojkanje singing is a tradition in villages in the Dalmatian area of Croatia. It is performed by two or more singers.


Singers use their throats to produce a special sound. Each song lasts as long as the main singer can hold his or her breath.

These songs can be about subjects including love, politics and current social events. These throat-singers must pass down their skills to younger generations for this tradition to survive. But as more and more young people move to cities, there are fewer people left to carry on this special tradition.

BARBARA KLEIN: Ojkanje singing is one of four additions on a special List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. The goal of this list is to identify threatened cultural traditions so that nations can work with UNESCO to protect them. The three other traditions added to the urgent safeguarding list are in China. They are the Meshrep tradition of the Uighur people; the method of building traditional Chinese boats called junks, and a kind of printing using wooden forms.

STEVE EMBER: Some people criticize UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage. They say the rules are so inclusive that any tradition can qualify. Others note that nations and groups apply for recognition of traditions in an effort to increase attention to their local industries, such as agriculture or travel.

One reporter questioned why Flamenco music is on the list since it is extremely popular and economically successful. He questioned whether a relatively new and extremely popular tradition should be on the same list as traditions that are ancient and disappearing.

BARBARA KLEIN: Cecile Duvelle is the chief of UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage program. She says globalization is threatening many cultural traditions. Here she talks about the Urgent Safeguarding List.

CECILE DUVELLE: “The most important list is of course the Urgent Safeguarding List. These states are inscribing by themselves, are proposing by themselves, elements they feel deem the attention of the international community. They foresee safeguarding plans, but they very often need the mobilization including by funding of the international community.”

STEVE EMBER: UNESCO explains that protecting intangible traditions requires making sure that a community continues to share the knowledge and skills of each tradition with younger generations. Traditions that are no longer considered meaningful or useful to a community die out. But a community that is concerned about a tradition that is disappearing can choose to act.

UNESCO does not choose the local traditions to be protected. The group requires that local communities take part in the proposal process. They approve of the protection efforts and can be involved as plans move forward.

CECILE DUVELLE: “The elements are proposed by states. But states must ensure for each element they propose, that they have the free prior and informed consent of the communities. They are not allowed to propose an element without the consent of the community. Moreover, they need to ensure the full participation of the communities in the safeguarding plan.”

BARBARA KLEIN: Ms. Duvelle says that the future of intangible culture depends on the education of younger generations. UNESCO works with governments to help strengthen educational programs in communities.

CECILE DUVELLE: “The young generation are very much targeted with this list because they must understand that they are the ones who are going to ensure, or not, the vitality and transmission of these elements to the next generations. So we need also to show that intangible heritage is not only something at risk of disappearing, but also something that is embodied in our daily lives.”

STEVE EMBER: UNESCO says intangible heritage is important to give people a sense of identity and belonging. It also links a community’s past and present. UNESCO says recognizing these traditions supports a shared sense of respect for humanity’s many ways of life.


BARBARA KLEIN: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Barbara Klein.

STEVE EMBER: And I’m Steve Ember. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at And you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.