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As the US withdraws from UNESCO citing so-called “anti-Israel bias” it seems a good time to reflect on what the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has done and continues to do for roots and world music.
Some Thoughts on the Importance of UNESCO
The stated mission of UNESCO is “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.” Beginning in 1961, UNESCO began collecting local music, mostly through field recordings, as a way to showcase and preserve aural traditions. They have also published reports, awarded prizes, and identified cultural landmarks as a way of encouraging understanding between cultures. Many musicians including Gilberto Gil, Manu Dibango, and Kudsi Erguner have been named UNESCO Artists for Peace.
Until a couple of years ago when the UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music was turned over the Smithsonian Folkways for distribution, these records were often difficult to find. But many of us who stumbled across them in record stores and flea markets and estate sales grabbed them up knowing whatever was inside would be a treat.
I have long claimed that music is the doorway to culture. Music rarely stands alone, but is enhanced when one knows about a culture's history and food and spirituality and literature and customs. Music begins the exploration, and without UNESCO's work it's difficult to imagine the cultural doorway being opened to Oman or Nepal or to the orthodox churches of Russia and Syria. Even more well-known paths can be rediscovered in the UNESCO recordings from places like Ireland, Mexico, and Norway.
Perhaps those who do not want intercultural dialogue are led by the warmongers. For if a deeper understanding of the Yemeni is gained through the Songs from Hadramawt and the Traditional Music of the North and The Yemenite Jews there might be less inclination to bomb the cities of Yemen or to arm those who do. There might further be more voices calling out to end the Yemeni famine and cholera epidemic. If there is more understanding of Venezuela through multiple volumes of Afro-Venezuelan Music there might be less support for the calls for regime change of a democratically elected government. Perhaps there would be less support for the 16-year war in Afghanistan if more knew the Female Musicians of Herat, the Music During the Civil War, and Tajik Music of Badakhshan.
I live in the rural American West where we are surrounded by the legacy of cowboy culture and the Wild West, Yet I can't imagine a singular culture here, some amalgam that lessens our history, and the accompanying loss of attending a Native American powwow or a Basque dance or a Greek food festival. And while I am not Basque nor Native American nor Greek I can enjoy and respect and celebrate these cultures without giving up any part of who I am.
There are so many ways to be enriched by understanding and supporting cultures beyond one's own, and UNESCO is but one resource for such exploration. Yet it is an important international organization that does much good. Whatever its faults, let us all band together to celebrate the good that UNESCO brings and the important work it does. The building of peace truly does depend each of us working to understand fellow citizens of the world. The UNESCO Collection of Traditional Music is a fantastic starting point. - Greg Harness
RootsWorld has published many essays and reviews of artists recognized by UNESCO over the years. Here are a few:
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About RootsWorld: RootsWorld is a world music magazine started in 1993, pretty much at the dawn of the term "world music" as well as the pre-dawn of internet publishing (I suspect this was the first music magazine of any sort published on the www). Our focus is the music of the world: Africa, Asia, Europe, Pacifica and The Americas, the roots of the global musical milieu that has come to be known as world music, be it traditional folk music, jazz, rock or some hybrid. How is that defined? I don't know and don't particularly care at this point: it's music from someplace you aren't, music with roots, music of the world and for the world. OK?
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