Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity

january 2006 -
Masterpieces of Intangible Heritage

Proclaimed Masterpieces 2005, 1-1-2006

The timbila is a wooden xylophone with a sound box made of gourds that is played by the Chopi people of Mozambique. An orchestra is made up of between five and thirty xylophones of varying sizes and with various pitches. The question is: how long will we still be able to hear timbila music? Its future is namely in doubt because the musicians who are masters of it are getting old and because young people are losing touch with this tradition. Another problem is that deforestation has made scarce the tree used to make the instrument.

In order to prevent timbila music from disappearing, UNESCO has added this type of music to its list of intangible masterpieces for 2005. This is a list of 43 ‘masterpieces of intangible heritage’. ‘Intangible heritage’ means such things as rituals, festivals, performing arts such as music and theatre, oral traditions, traditional skills and traditional learning. Just as with the two previous lists published in 2001 and 2003, the aim of this list is to increase public awareness of this type of cultural heritage.

UNESCO presents its list of Proclaimed Masterpieces for the year 2005 on its website. It’s an entertaining site with interesting titbits of information: for instance, did you know that in Uganda, traditional clothing is made of tree bark, that in Nigeria there is a special way of foretelling the future, and that old Palestinian women have their own storytelling tradition - and one that is only practised by women!
However, intangible heritage is - as the name suggests - intangible, so things do remain rather abstract. It’s a shame that the creators of the site did not think of adding a few sound files, so that we could also hear the special nasal sound of the timbila.