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Folklife at the International Level: the Roots of Intangible Cultural Heritage Part II, with Valdimar Tr. Hafstein

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Professor Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, University of Iceland. ©Kristinn Ingvarsson, Prófessorí þjóðfræði, used by permission

In the last post, the Folklife at the International Level series took a turn into the world of “intangible cultural heritage” (ICH), a category of heritage on the global stage that developed decades ago, thanks to the joint efforts of WIPO and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). As noted, since the late 1980s, ‘ICH’ – as it is known and used today – is most connected to the work of UNESCO, through a series of initiatives and programs that led the way for the increasingly popular 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of today. The next couple of posts in this series will make stops along the path of the 2003 Convention’s history, exploring some of those ‘pre-cursor’ initiatives from the late 1980s to the early 2000s and the debates they sparked in the international heritage discourse and associated sector. Such debates brought to light issues that still persist; in broad terms, they reflect tensions arising from applying cultural policy that derives its strength at international and national levels to sustaining living and ever-changing cultural heritage at the local level, where it is almost always given its life.

Nonetheless, exploring the roots of the ICH concept, especially the forces that gave it global momentum during earlier years, takes us back once again to its roots as mainly a pursuit of protecting living cultural expressions as intellectual property. Luckily, these roots are rather gnarly and twisted, making for an interesting story to explore – one that has been argued, as we shall see, to constitute folklore in and of itself. Even more luckily, I was able to interview a leading scholar in cultural heritage studies, and of ICH policy in particular, Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, Professor of Folklore and Ethnology at the University of Iceland. He is the former Chair of Iceland’s National Commission for UNESCO and ex-president of the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF), and is the author of a number of scholarly articles and books on ICH, cultural property, international heritage politics, copyright in traditional knowledge, and the history of folklore studies. His book, Making Intangible Heritage: El Condor Pasa and Other Stories from UNESCO, with Indiana University Press, will be published later this year and is accompanied by the film, The Condor’s Flight: A Letter, a Song and the Story of Intangible Cultural Heritage (30 min, 2018), co-produced with Áslaug Einarsdóttir.

The following interview begins by looking at cultural heritage more broadly, before getting into Hafstein’s sharp insights into both studying and recounting the ‘making of ICH,’ as well as the potential relationships between ICH and folklore studies.

Michelle Stefano: You argue that at its core, “cultural heritage” is about change. What do you mean?

Valdimar Tr. Hafstein: I find it helpful to compare the concept of cultural heritage to another powerful concept, the environment. Both of these are recent terms, coined in the 19th century, both entered common speech only in the last fifty years, and only became as ubiquitous as they are now in the last thirty years. Intangible heritage is of course more recent still. But despite their recent vintage, these concepts are incredibly powerful: activist groups have organized around them, they are forces to reckon with in public opinion, and authoritative institutions have formed around them. In the past half century, the concept of the environment has had a profound (if insufficient) impact on how we conceive of the material world and how we act upon it. There have long been rivers and oceans and atmosphere, but the importance of the environment is that it creates a connection between water pollution in a Mexican village and rising sea levels in Amsterdam; it ties together the depletion of cod stocks around Newfoundland and smog in Beijing. Most importantly, the environment makes common cause for the people affected. I hasten to add that I’m not writing this as a climate skeptic: there is no question as to whether the environment actually exists; it is a category of things, an instrument for classifying the world and therefore also for changing it. Categories of this kind have performative power. They make themselves real. By acting on the world, molding it in their image, they bring themselves into being.

If the environment is one such concept, cultural heritage is another. Much like the environment, cultural heritage is a new category of things, lumped together in novel ways under its rubric; things as motley as buildings, monuments, swords, songs, jewelry, visual patterns, religious paraphernalia, literature, healing dances, and woodcarving traditions. The things themselves are not new, but the category is, and heritage is a new way to think about them and offers new ways to act on them. Like the environment, heritage does not seek to describe the world; it changes the world. Just like the environment, the major use of heritage is to mobilize people and resources, to reform discourses, and to transform practices. Like the environment, then, heritage is about change. Don’t let the talk of preservation fool you: all heritage is change. ICH is a prime example, dating only from the turn of the century, a term smacking of bureaucratese, concocted inside an international organization, and yet within a few years people in various corners of the world referred to their own practices as their “ICH,” governments mobilized to safeguard that ICH, to promote it, educate about it, to program it, etc., changing people’s relationship to their practices and therefore also the practices themselves.

MS:  How did you come to study the machinations of UNESCO?

VTrH: I did fieldwork as a participant observer on the Intergovernmental Committee [for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage] in UNESCO that drafted the 2003 Convention, as part of the Icelandic delegation, and as an NGO representative on WIPO’s Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore. At the time I really was not sure if it was bona fide fieldwork, bona fide ethnography, bona fide folklore. For sure, the stuff I heard diplomats discuss in Paris and Geneva was the stuff we study as folklore: from oral traditions to traditional medicinal knowledge, from folk music to festivals, from crafts to rituals to cultural spaces. I even recall entire days in WIPO meetings given over to the question of how to define folklore, with lawyers from different parts of the world recycling arguments from the last one-hundred-and-fifty years of folklore’s disciplinary history (a source of no small amusement for a folklorist at the back of the room).

So, granted, the lawyers spoke about folklore. But was I really doing the work of a folklorist? And is it really fieldwork if the field site has marble floors and glass elevators? Or if I wear a suit? Several colleagues have actually posed these questions at academic conferences and in anonymous peer-reviews. Some have suggested I ought to study something different, go somewhere else, talk to other people, and see how things work “on the ground.” I confess I had moments of doubt, but my answer remains the same: yes, we must go elsewhere too, and yes, this is all very meta, but for all that, this is as real a field as any other; a field, moreover, that it is crucial to enter, analyze, understand, and criticize. It neither looks nor feels quite like the fields to which folklorists and anthropologists have traditionally taken their questions, but then again, it is high time to liberate our disciplinary imagination.

I think it is our responsibility as folklorists to follow the concepts we create or have a hand in shaping – folklore, tradition, traditional knowledge, expressive culture, cultural spaces, cultural heritage – not only into the street, the plaza, or the home, but also into the studio and the pharmaceutical industry, into government offices, electoral politics, and, yes, into intergovernmental committees.

MS: What drew you into tracing the history of ICH?

VTrH: I’m a sucker for good stories. The UN is full of them. A number of stories account for the origins of the 2003 Convention. I heard them during fieldwork, first as a participant observer in the meetings where the 2003 Convention was drafted, and then as an observant participant in meetings after it entered into force [in 2006]. The stories came up in interviews and conversations, in offices and corridors and elevators, in coffee breaks and over dinner. I also came across references to them, short and long, in archives and publications. These were fascinating to me, for to account for origins is to explain, to rationalize, and to validate. Recounting or referring to these stories, people give meaning to what they are up to or what they propose to do.

Stories that recite the origins of ICH are set in the Andes, in Japan, and in Morocco, and they take us to New York and Paris, and eventually around the world. This is metafolklore, or metaheritage, if you prefer; UN folklore about folklore and its protection. Bringing the perspective of a folklorist to these narratives, I recount them in order to get at their uses, their structure, their performance, and their affects; to appreciate how they help imagine coherence, conjure up contrast, and provide charters for action. And no surprise, though the storytellers and audiences may be dressed in suits and ties or skirt-suits and scarves, the stories they tell rehearse well-known themes from folk narrative tradition, recycling traditional motifs and well-worn plots.

MS: You have conducted extensive research into the origins of today’s global ICH policy, which has often been presented as centering on a famous 1973 letter from the Bolivian Minister of External Relations and Religious Affairs to the Director-General of UNESCO. What was this letter about?

VTrH: I had heard many people refer to this letter when, with some help from UNESCO’s head archivist, I dug it up from the archives in the basement of UNESCO’s Paris headquarters. It took a bit of searching. The letter is brief, but a detailed memorandum accompanies it. Here, the Bolivian Minister impresses upon the international community how urgent it is to take action to protect folklore – folk music, folk dance and craft – against exploitation and misappropriation. He cites a survey by his ministry on the international protection of culture, which found that only material culture – buildings and objects – were protected by international conventions, but that UNESCO offered no protection to expressive culture, which was, according to the Minister, “at present undergoing the most intensive clandestine commercialization and export, in a process of commercially oriented transculturation destructive of the traditional cultures.” The memorandum describes these threats and their effects and argues for the need to add protection for folklore to international copyright conventions and to organize a joint international effort to safeguard folklore.

This letter from the Bolivian Minister is very often credited with inscribing folklore on the international agenda. As the story would have it, the one told in the UN, this got the ball rolling. Thirty years later, in 2003, that ball hit the goal in UNESCO’s 2003 Convention; in WIPO, it’s still in play. But the story also motivates the letter: the “most intensive clandestine commercialization and export” to which the Minister refers, the story informs us, is first and foremost one act of appropriation: that of the song, “El Condor Pasa,” on Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 album, Bridge over Troubled Water, a traditional folksong from the Andes that Simon and Garfunkel performed to great critical acclaim and commercial success, but without any of the royalties going back to the source communities. The story told about the letter thus sketches a clash between the multinational music industry, represented by Simon & Garfunkel, and on the other hand the Bolivian government, which rises to the defense of a simple, defenseless folk tune, championing and protecting it along with other expressions of folk culture, and enlisting (with the letter to UNESCO’s Director-General) the aid of other governments to fight a good fight in defense of vernacular culture that culminates, 30 years later, in UNESCO’s 2003 Convention. It’s a great success story and a motivational story for people working toward creating that Convention and, later, on implementing it. It sets international diplomacy and cultural work to a tune we can whistle.

MS: Yet, you have discovered that the story is much more complex, as covered in great detail in your forthcoming book and its accompanying film…

VTrH: Well, yes: stories we tell about ourselves sometimes reveal more than we know, more than we would like. At closer look, this story turned out to be more intricate: the song’s provenance is more complicated, questions of ownership and appropriation more nuanced, and the ethics of protection are not as straightforward as the story makes them out to be. The story turns out to be pretty fascinating actually, with a twisting plot, a colorful set of characters, and a red herring. And the lessons we may infer from it directly contradict those usually drawn from it.

MS: Based on your research, you have just co-produced a documentary film, which presents this multi-layered and fascinating origins story. What do you hope to accomplish with the film, and what are some reactions to it that you have encountered?

VTrH: The film is now touring a few conferences and film festivals, but it will officially be out this fall and available online. On one level, the film tracks the circulation and transformations of this song, known to us as “El Condor Pasa,” in its endless variations and covers: from the Andes mountains to global metropoles; from Lima to Paris to New York, and back; from panpipes to piano and from symphony orchestras to the disco; from indigenous to popular music; and from world music back to national heritage. Some of the protagonists are: Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Daniel Alomía Robles, Los Incas, the Cerro de Pasco Copper Company, the Victor Talking Machine Corporation, the Falangist Socialist Party of Bolivia, Chuck Berry, NASA and UNESCO. On another level, the film recounts the traditional story about the song circulating primarily within the UN, and queries how it is told and to what ends. On a third level, the film offers its own story about cultural protection, questioning its logic by examining the narrative offered to justify the protection of ICH, adding nuance and context to it. Ultimately, the film queries the relationship between protection and dispossession.

The film is designed for classroom use, as an educational resource for undergraduate and graduate classes in folklore, anthropology, world music, and heritage studies. Some colleagues and friends have already used it successfully for that purpose. But then I also hope that heritage workers, cultural administrators and policy makers will see the film. I’ve been invited to screen it at WIPO, and I hope to screen it on the UNESCO circuit as well. There is also, I think, a broad international audience for this film, thanks to the international success of the 2003 Convention, so while the spoken language in the film is English, it now also comes with subtitles in Chinese (by folklorist Juwen Zhang), Italian (by folklorist Fabio Mugnaini), and Icelandic, and I’m hoping to get it translated into Spanish and French at least, with hopefully more languages to follow. Indeed, Juwen Zhang plans to show the film in the Chinese Ministry of Culture, so it is making the rounds.

MS: Why is it important to understand this history?

Letters from the folklorist and Director of the Folklore Section of the Ministry of Public Education, Peru, José María Arguedas, who was involved in an exchange of recordings (undertaken between the mid-1940s and early 1950s) with the Archive of American Folk Song (AFC predecessor), resulting in the AFC collection: Peru Ministerio de Educacion Publica collection of folk music. In the 1960s, Arguedas was also a key contact for Alan Lomax in obtaining recordings of Peruvian traditional music for his Cantometrics research project.

VTrH: Taking these stories from UNESCO – stories that make grand claims, stories of origins and success stories – I recount them in order to complicate them. Adding context and nuance, they gain critical complexity that undermines their moral imperative. Refusing to stop at the success story’s happily-ever-after casts a different light on all that goes before it. It is no less important to refuse to begin only at “Once upon a time.” The beginning represents an arbitrary cut-off point, concealing what came before. Reaching back prior to that point may radically alter our understanding of what comes after. The provenance of “El Condor Pasa” and its cosmopolitan circulation in the 20th century, for example, offers a very different vantage point on the story often told in UNESCO about Simon & Garfunkel’s alleged appropriation of an indigenous Andean melody and how it motivated the Bolivian government to write a letter in 1973 soliciting UNESCO’s support to protect what eventually became known as ICH.

Disrupting the general understanding of how ICH became a UNESCO priority, cutting into the linear origin story opens alternative perspectives on safeguarding. Knowing that the 1973 letter was sent by a fascist serving as foreign minister in one of the most brutal military regimes in Latin American history, a dictatorship that oppressed and dispossessed indigenous peoples in Bolivia, is surely an invitation to consider the question: if ICH is the solution, what was the problem again?

Narrative is a critical device. This approach refuses closure; it seeks instead to open policies and practices up to scrutiny and imagination. The origin story demonstrates the critical capacities of narrative. Going back to the beginning, revising genesis – taking a different starting point, amplifying suppressed voices, undoing erasures – brings back into view long buried hatchets and disagreements; along with them, it exhumes roads not taken, missed opportunities, and options dispensed with. Recounting genesis differently is a way to retrieve, as Pierre Bourdieu once remarked, “the possibility that things could have been (and still could be) otherwise.”

MS: On a final note, how can the field of folklore contribute to and make use of the work underway with ICH?

VTrH: As modernity’s storyteller, folklore studies can add critical edge to ICH. That is one task for the field of folklore in the domain of heritage. But there are other tasks. Those of the archivist, for example, who inventories cultural practices; the curator who interprets them; the teacher who educates people about them; and the culture broker who builds bridges and brings people together across their differences.

Perhaps the most encouraging upshot of the creation of ICH – the concept and the Convention – is that it brings together diverse practices and various people whom before inhabited different cultural categories. There is no finer demonstration of the performative power of concepts and their creative possibility. The concept invites us to imagine what unites diverse customs, cultural practices, and traditional expressions. What singing has in common with knitting. What building has in common with dancing. What cooking has in common with carving, or acupuncture with playing the accordion. Here lie opportunities to explore and meetings to broker. We can reach out, foster collaboration and promote alliances.

What unites them (and I take inspiration from Dell Hymes here) is the aesthetic capacity to make beauty, form, and meaning out of innumerable particular circumstances; the capability to relate to previous generations through expressions and practices that rehearse their words, sounds, gestures; and the social ability to share these with others. This is the creative dynamic at the heart of folklore and of that part of it now also known as ‘ICH.’ The 2003 Convention, flawed as it is, imperfect and inadequate and sometimes counter-productive, is about enabling this dynamic. To stand a chance of sometimes succeeding, I think it needs the critical eye, the caring hand, and the cross-cutting perspective of folklore studies.

And one of the things I’ve come to realize is that we have always been there. Whether in leading or supporting roles, we figure in the history of ICH and its stories of origins from beginning to end: from Daniel Alomía Robles to José María Arguedas, from Alan Lomax to Richard Kurin, just to throw a few names out there. In the end, the story of intangible heritage is also a story about the discipline of folklore and the “folklorization” of the public sphere: a sedimentation of the field’s perspectives and knowledge over time into everyday life, shaping people’s attitudes to their own culture and the way they represent it to others. And that, I think, is at the heart of the mission of our field, its specific mandate among the humanities and social sciences.

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