Cécile Duvelle / UNESCO

Meg: I imagine your work in the realm of intangible cultural heritage has involved heart-breaking moments, and experiences of great hope. Could you share an instance of each?

Aka Pygmies dancing and singing.

Cecile: There are many times when I have been very pleased to have the privilege of working in this field, and serve the international community through UNESCO. I still have a vivid memory of my trip to Central African Republic, where we visited a community of Aka Pygmies. We had to walk a little way in the forest to meet them, because their camps are never installed near a road or a carriage way. They danced and sang in an extraordinary fashion, one man especially imitating the sound of animals and their movements to attract and capture them.

A few years later, I was in Algiers for the Pan-African Festival of culture, and I knew that some of the Pygmies had come to attend the Festival. I immediately wanted to meet them, and they recognized me. They were extremely kind to me, laughing and enjoying seeing me again after so many years, and I was also surprised to reunite with what seemed like classmates! Our differences did not exist at that time, and it gives a feeling of exhilaration and eternity.

There were also difficult moments when we felt powerless. Political struggles between States where national interests take priority over concern for the safeguarding of the intangible heritage of humanity. Politics are often cold and implacable, and as lovers of culture we are sometimes shocked by different kinds of logic. But so it is. Only the international community can make things happen. We do not live in a dream world but in the real world, where the struggle for individual interests are often strong. But we must consider every drop of water we pour into the ocean as positive.

Meg: Can you offer any observations about the role of cultural intangibles on emotional intangibles, such as a sense of belonging, security, pride, self-esteem?

Cécile in Garapagos island.

Cécile in Garapagos island.

Cecile: I mentioned earlier : the intangible heritage has an essentially subjective value, a value for those who practice it and for whom there is a strong cultural base. Some expressions or manifestations are nothing spectacular or unusual, but they weld a community and give it a sense of identity and continuity necessary for its self-esteem and pride as a community. A style of knitting, a simple lullaby, a tradition associated with grape harvesting will make people immediately recognize themselves as having a common cultural identity. The value of their expression thus becomes objective, in that it allows communities to live and practice their intangible heritage, transmitting it to future generations, fueling the cultural diversity that is essential to the well-being and future of all mankind.

I remember organizing an evening at home with several friends, including a new colleague from Papua New Guinea; he had trouble adjusting to the climate of Paris and small city apartments. My brother, who had lived several years in Papua New Guinea, was also there, and they exchanged a few words, trying to identify common acquaintances. Then my brother found a guitar in a corner and began to play a lullaby he had learned in Papua New Guinea. Our colleague, stunned at first, began to break down, and started to shed tears while singing the melody softly. He suddenly felt all his “strangeness” in the Parisian environment, but also the brotherhood between a Frenchman and a Papuan, through a shared melody.

For more information on UNESCO go to http://www.UNESCO.org

UNESCO Culture Sector – Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage www.UNESCO.org/culture/ich/

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