El Güegüense: Heritage of Humanity
On November 25, 2005, El Güegüense, a 17th-century dance-
theater or dramatized dance, one of Nicaragua’s cultural treasures, was
declared a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by
María López Vigil
In the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, UNESCO defines intangible cultural heritage as “the practices, representations and expressions, knowledge and skills that provide communities, groups and individuals with a sense of identity and continuity with their history and their culture” as well as the objects, cultural spaces, rites, theatrical representations and literary texts associated with them.
This heritage is manifested in oral and written traditions and expressions, performing arts, social practices, rituals and festivals, in knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and in the techniques of traditional craftsmanship. It is transmitted from generation to generation, and constantly recreated by communities and groups in their own environment in response to their interaction with nature and with their history. Safeguarding this heritage guarantees the sustainability of humanity’s cultural diversity. UNESCO has four major programs in this field: proclamation of the masterpieces of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity, living human treasures, endangered languages and traditional music of the world.
In 2005, the third proclamation of masterpieces worthy of being considered Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity was issued. Between November 21 and 24, Princess Basma Bint Talal of Jordan chaired a jury of 18 members—none of them Nicaraguan—which analyzed and evaluated 70 candidates with their respective dossiers and chose 43 masterpieces as outstanding examples of the richness and diversity of the cultural and intangible heritage of humanity, including Nicaragua’s El Güegüense. Another 47 masterpieces had been chosen in 2001 and 2003.
The Language, Dance and Music of the Garífuna, one of the peoples that inhabit the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast, have also already been declared part of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and the Ruins of León Viejo were included in the tangible Heritage of Humanity, a distinction to which Nicaragua aspires for the city of Granada and the León Cathedral as well.
In describing the values of El Güegüense, UNESCO characterized it as a satirical drama” and “energetic expression of protest against the colonial system,” considering it “one of the most significant Latin American expressions of the colonial era.” The character of the Güegüense is appreciated for his ability to “undermine Spanish authority.” UNESCO notes that in contemporary Nicaragua “to play the Güegüense” means to be capable of this challenging skill to undermine power and authority. Our Güegüense received this distinction along with other masterpieces of humanity.
The others in Latin America were:
* The Rabinal Achí of Guatemala, an oral and dance drama from the 15th century that reflects the pre-Hispanic traditions of the Mayan people, specifically those of the Kajyub village, capital of the Rabinaleb region at the time of the Spanish conquest. The conflict between the Rabinal and the Quiché is related through music, spoken narratives and masked dance. The Spanish colony and the armed conflict in the area where this tradition originated has put it in danger of disappearing due to the contemporary folklorizing and trivializing of its content.
* The colorfully-decorated oxcarts of Costa Rica that transported coffee to its Pacific ports beginning in the mid-19th century. In the 20th century, each region began painting them with its own particular design. Today, these oxcarts and their painted wheels are emblematic of the crafts of Costa Rica.
* The Cocolo dance-drama that originated in the Dominican Republic in the mid-19th century among the English-speaking migrants who came to the island to cut sugar cane and is preserved in San Pedro de Macorís. “Cocolos” was the pejorative term for these people, whose communities continue to perform this dance-theater at Christmas, during Carnival and during the Feast of St. John. They hold fast to their African-English-Dominican culture as a sign of their identity.
* The Samba de Roda, a Brazilian dance originating among the black slaves of Bahía in the 17th century. This dance, with choreography and poems, inspired the samba, current icon of the Brazilian identity.
* The Cultural Space of the Palenque of San Basilio, a village of 3,500 inhabitants near Cartagena, Colombia, which has preserved since the 17th century the palenques or walled communities formed by the black slaves who escaped from their owners and the horror of slavery. San Basilio is the only one that has survived to this day and has preserved its own cultural identity. Palenquero is the only Creole language in the Americas based on the Spanish tongue that has syntactic characteristics of the Bantu language.
* The Taquile Textile Art in Puno on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca. The Taquile people speak Quechua and retain pre-Hispanic Andean traditions in the cultural space of their island. Their textile art, produced by both womenand men, reflects ancient traditions. The chullos—woven woolhats with an earflap—and waistbands that depict the agricultural and ritual calendar are especially valuable for their traditional designs.
In Africa, the distinction was bestowed on the Vimbuza Ritual and Healing Dance of Malawi; the Gule Wamkulu Ritual and Cultural Dance of Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia; the Cultural Space of the Pastoral Peoples of Mali, which celebrate the Yaraal and Degal festivals; the Orchestral Music of the Chopi communities of Mozambique; the Ifa Divination Ritual of Nigeria; the Kankurang Initiation Rite of the Mandinga people of Senegal and Gambia; the Bark Cloth made by the Baganda people of southern Uganda; the Makishi Male Initiation Ritual practiced by various peoples in western Zambia; and the Mbende-Jerusarema Dances of the Zezuru Shona people of Zimbabwe.
Among the Arab peoples, the proclamation named the Ahellil of Gourara, a musical and poetic ceremony of the Zenete people of the southwest Algerian oases; the Cultural Space of the Bedu people of Petra and Wadi Rum in Jordan; the Annual Festive Fair of Tan-Tan, which brings together the nomadic tribes of Morocco; and the social critical narrations preserved in the Hikaye Oral Tradition of Palestine.
In Europe, this honorable distinction was given to the Polyphonic Music of the Ghegs of northern Albania; the Duduk, an oboe made in Armenia from apricot wood; the Procession of Giants and Dragons of Belgium and France; the Bistristsa Babi, archaic ritual dances of the Shoplouk region of Bulgaria; the Dance of the Recruits of the Czech Republic; the Tenore Song of Sardinia in Italy, an expression of the region’s ancient pastoral culture; the Calus Ritual Dance of southern Romania; the Olonkho, Yakut poetic and epic texts of the Turkic-Mongolian peoples, today within the Russian Federation; the Fujara, traditional flute of central Slovakian shepherds; the Patum of Berga, a traditional festival originating in the Middle Ages in Barcelona, Spain; and the Dance and Musical Religious Ceremony of the Mevlevi, a Sufi order of the 13th century that continues to be practiced in communities in Turkey.
Receiving the distinction in Asia and the Pacific were the Baul Songs of Bangladesh; the Mask Dance of the Drums of Bhutan’s Drametse Community; the Sbek Tom Khmer Shadow Theater of Cambodia; the Songs, Dance and Folklore of the Uyghur Muqam people of Xinjiang, one of thelargest ethnic minorities of the People’s Republic of China; the Ramlila, a musical-theatrical representation of the Ramayana text of India; the Kris Daggars of Indonesia, weapons from the 14th century considered to be spiritual objects with magical powers; Kabuki Theater of Japan; Mak Yong Theater of Malaysia; the Urtiin Duu, traditional songs of the nomadic shepherds of Mongolia; the Darangen Epic Song of the Maranao people of the Philippines; the Gangneung Danoje Festival,which celebrates the male and female deities of the Taebaek Mountains in northern Korea; and the Cultural Space of the Gong Culture in the central mountains of Vietnam.
El Güegüense is in good company.
We applaud and celebrate them all.