By Prarthana Mitra
What do Mongolian camel-coaxing, Dominican merengue, Slovakian bagpipe music, Spanish equestrian practices, Czech puppetry, and Indian Chhau dance have in common? They are among the 300+ endangered practices of social and cultural significance listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity curated by the UNESCO, which made a significant addition this week — reggae.
Reggae, the genre of protest music from Jamaica popularised by Bob Marley, made it to the global compendium of oral and intangible treasures of humankind, to all music lovers’ delight. UNESCO’s conferment of heritage status on reggae is a global and institutional recognition of the musical form’s worth. The nomination from the Kingston, Jamaica’s capital, was submitted earlier this year.
Calling reggae a “voice for all” in its citation, the UN’s cultural wing said in its official statement, “Its contribution to international discourse on issues of injustice, resistance, love and humanity underscores the dynamics of the element as being at once cerebral, socio-political, sensual and spiritual.”
“The basic social functions of the music — as a vehicle for social commentary, a cathartic practice, and a means of praising God — have not changed, and the music continues to act as a voice for all,” UNESCO added.
History of hope
Arising out of mento, ska, jazz and blues music in the Carribean island of Jamaica, reggae literally meant a “raggedy” expression of dissatisfaction in the 60s, stemming from growing crime, violence, poverty, and unemployment in the nation. The emerging generations of Jamaicans transformed music into their most subversive weapon, using reggae to criticise the government for failing at democracy twenty years post-independence.
Under the tutelage of Marley, Kingston became the reggae hub in the 70s as Rastafarianism (pan-Africanism) came to be adopted as an alternative way of life in times of grinding poverty. It accepted the teachings of 1930s civil rights activist Marcus Garvey as gospel, advocating a starkly honest doctrine of peace, love, self-help, and anti-corruption.
The sacramental use of marijuana endorsed by the Rastas did not always go down well with Jamaica’s elite society or the law enforcement authorities. Among the reggae artists who attained a cult status at the time were Burning Spear, Culture, The Congoes, Big Youth, The Mighty Diamonds, Dillinger, Tapper Zukie, Lee Perry, The Ethiopians, and Max Romeo.
Reggae persisted, spreading far beyond the island nation and acquiring other dimensions in the UK and the US. It influenced rock and roll, and London’s punk movement, in particular. Award-winning British writer and Rastafarian Benjamin Zephaniah writes poetry in a reggae-infused style, suggesting the influence of the roots movement beyond music.
Immediately recognised by its use of percussive bass, counterpoint, offbeat rhythm section, and lyrics extrapolating news headlines and political comments, the sound of reggae is loved all over the world. To safeguard its legacy, radio stations centred around reggae as well as dedicated exhibitions will be curated by UNESCO in association with the Jamaican government.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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