UNESCO adds reggae to global cultural heritage list

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Reggae quickly became a global phenomenon thanks to singers such as Bob Marley. (Paul Natkin image)

PORT LOUIS, Mauritius (AFP) — Reggae music, whose chill, lilting grooves won international fame thanks to artists like Bob Marley, on Thursday secured a coveted spot on the United Nations’ list of global cultural treasures.

UNESCO, the world body’s cultural and scientific agency, added the genre that originated in Jamaica to its collection of “intangible cultural heritage” deemed worthy of protection and promotion.

“This is a historic day. We are very, very happy,” enthused Jamaica’s Culture Minister Olivia Grange, speaking by phone from Mauritius where the listings were announced.

“Anywhere you go and say you’re from Jamaica, they answer ‘Bob Marley,'” said Grange, adding that the distinction “underscores the importance of our culture and our music, whose theme and message is ‘one love, togetherness and peace.'”

UNESCO noted that while reggae started out as “the voice of the marginalised” it was “now played and embraced by a wide cross-section of society, including various genders, ethnic and religious groups.”

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,” Paris-based UNESCO added in a statement.

Reggae joins a list of cultural traditions that includes the horsemanship of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, a Mongolian camel-coaxing ritual and Czech puppetry, among more than 300 other traditional practices.

Jamaica applied for reggae’s inclusion this year at a meeting of the UN agency on the island of Mauritius, where 40 proposals were under consideration.

They included Bahamian strawcraft, South Korean wrestling, the Irish sport of hurling and perfume making in the southern French city of Grasse.

Hope to the oppressed

Reggae emerged in the late 1960s out of Jamaica’s ska and rocksteady styles, also drawing influence from American jazz and blues.

It quickly became popular in the United States as well as in Britain, where many Jamaican immigrants had moved in the post-WWII years.

The style is often championed as a music of the oppressed, with lyrics addressing sociopolitical issues, imprisonment and inequality.

Reggae also became associated with Rastafarianism, which deified the former Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and promoted the sacramental use of ganja, or marijuana.

The 1968 single “Do the Reggay” by Toots and the Maytals was the first popular song to use the name.

Marley and his group the Wailers then soared to fame on classic hits such as “No Woman, No Cry” and “Stir It Up.”

Peter Tosh, a core member of the Wailers, established a successful solo career with hits including “Legalize It,” while Desmond Dekker also enjoyed international success with the song “Israelites.”

Toots and the Maytals rose to prominence with “Pressure Drop” and Jimmy Cliff became an international sensation with “The Harder They Come,” also the title of a 1972 movie he starred in.

The reggae sound, with its heavy bass lines and drums, has influenced countless artists and inspired many genres including reggaeton, dub and dancehall.

The steady beats and smooth grooves have also proven key to hip-hop: Sister Nancy’s anthem “Bam Bam,” for example, has been heavily sampled by superstars like Kanye West, Lauryn Hill, Chris Brown and Jay-Z.

The award will help “normalise reggae” which has always been a little marginalised on the world stage because of its “whiff of cannabis and libertarian revolt,” according to Jerome Levasseur, the director of the Bagnols Reggae festival in southern France.

While largely symbolic, inclusion on the UNESCO cultural heritage list can serve to raise the profile of the country and the practice.

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