Sunday, December 25, 2016

Tango, mankind's most unusual heritage

A UNESCO image
Tango is an element of the intangible cultural heritage of the humanity. On October 2, 2009 UNESCO famously called for its preservation.What most of us don't know is how special is Tango's place on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

The goal is to safeguard living traditions in the communities: UNESCO inscribes local cultural practices and traditions on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity to give them better visibility, to boost self-esteem of the local communities, to foster the global dialogue and to encourage the authorities to do more to safeguard them.The UNESCO process takes special care to avoid excessive commercialization of culture for tourism and for export. UNESCO's goal is for the cultural riches to remain vested in the community, transmitted from generation to generation in the natural way, and continuously developing with the flow of time; it strongly opposes the danger of "folklorisation"(where a quest for "strict authenticity" smothers natural evolution and transmission of culture). UNESCO clearly recognizes the clash between safeguarding cultural traditions vs. protecting copyright or ownership. Verbatim: "Indeed, as intangible cultural heritage evolves thanks to its continuous recreation by the communities and groups that bear and practice it, protecting a specific manifestation like the performance of a dance, the recorded interpretation of a song or the patented use of a medicinal plant may lead to freezing this intangible cultural heritage and hinder its natural evolution. Moreover, as the communities are the ones who create, maintain and transmit intangible cultural heritage, it is difficult to determine the collective owner of such heritage."
Argentine legislators joining the 2008 petition

The "where" and the "how".... The UNESCO process begins from defining the geographic range of the cultural practice, and its traditional mode of transmission (family, teacher-apprentice, observation and imitation?). Tango's "where" and "how" are unparalleled in the Representative List! It's geographic range is defined as the entire world - then the declaration seeks to safeguard tango's place of birth in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. There isn't any other musical / poetic / dance art form in the whole list which is defined as distributed world-wide yet needs safeguarding in its birthplace. With tango, much credit should be given to the global communities for making Buenos Aires a place of pilgrimage, a center of study, and a source of inspiration. That's why a globalized cultural phenomenon was able to revitalize its cradle. Time and time again, when tango was in danger at its place of birth, the expat communities lent hand to sustain it ... as early in the 1900s, when tango was disallowed by the Catholic Church itself, and derided as an African-influenced, underclass subculture by the purists at home, and then in the "dark days" of tango in the 1960s and 1970s, when the foreign music fans didn't let the tradition lapse, and of course beginning in the 1990s with the social dance wave going global.
With the traditional mode of transmission, tango is just as unique. UNESCO simply refused to narrow it down to something specific. So tango has become the only cultural legacy which has lots of "right ways" to pass on the tradition!
UNESCO asks, then, about a nominated cultural practice: How does it adapt to modernity? Are the traditional ways endangered? Are there urgent safekeeping needs? Any cultural asset worth being protected by UNESCO must conform to the human rights. Importantly, sacred practices and oral arts may be safeguarded, but neither religions nor languages themselves qualify for protection. In these respects, tango isn't totally unique, but it's still very special.  Verbatim: 
- tango both embodies and encourages diversity and cultural dialogue
- it adapts to new environments and changing times
The UNESCO declaration makes it an honorable duty of Argentina to nurture its tango community in BsAs, while strongly speaking against exclusive "ownership of culture", and for broad global dialogue, change, and diversity."Inscription of the element on the Representative List would contribute to visibility of intangible cultural heritage and a deeper understanding of the Tango as a regional expression resulting from the fusion of several cultures" 

The petitioners: The UNESCO declaration was sought jointly by the municipalities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. In Buenos Aires, Luciana Blasco, a cultural event organizer who then served on the city council, spearheaded the petition, citing the existing 1998 City Law 130 which already called for the city to help its tango community. Such luminaries as Horacio Arturo Ferrer (1933-2014), an Uruguayan-Argentine tango poet of "Balada para un loco" fame and the creator of Argentine National Tango Academy, Leopoldo Federico (1927-2014), bandoneonist of such classic orchestras as Di Sarli and Troilo's, composer, and tango orchestra leader, Raul Lavie, a contemporary tango singer, José Gobello (1919-2013), the patriarch lunfardo expert, and Laura, second wife of Astor Piazzolla and chairwoman of his memorial foundation, joined. Such famed dancers as Mora Godoy and Miguel Angel Zotto supported the project (Mora, who describes herself as the most important tango dancer in Argentina, once famously dragged reluctant Pres. Obama onto the dance floor). Zotto, who already starred in Tango Agentino on the Broadway in the mid-1980, famously said that nothing endangers tango in today's global culture. We see a broad list of tango innovators and modernizers signing up for a project to preserve the heritage, but it should come as no surprise, being one of those contradictions which are always woven into the fabric of tangoInterestingly also, among the preexisting conservation efforts, they also listed both Day of Tango, December 11, and the virtually unknown Uruguayan Day of Tango, October 5 (this date commemorated the creation of FUTANGO (Federation of Uruguayan Tango) in 2005, but it kind of dissolved in the broader festivities of Uruguayan Heritage Days, and never really caught on). 

So many facets! The petition strongly emphasized cultural diversity as the very core of tango, a central part of its essence and roots, and its continuous development in cross-cultural fertilization. There were many cool details in the petition which which didn't make the cut in the UNESCO declaration. For example, in addition to tango proper, milonga, and "so called vals criollo", the petition sought to include the sub-genre of the milonga candombeada, too. In addition to musicians, poets, and dancers, the petition originally sought to include playwrights, script writers, historians, journalists, editors, website operators etc. Language of tango was petitioned for (since Lunfardo Academy was one of the movers behind the project), but UNESCO rules specifically disallow as broad things as language from the lists of cultural heritage.The petition also sought to include tango-related handicrafts (later on, filete won a separate UNESCO heritage designation). I can only assume that the broad scope of the proposed protections was eventually found to be too wide for the UNESCO process, which is more geared towards community artists and craftsmen than to the big-city editors, producers, and web designers

Superficial foreign fans and enforced authenticity? Another sentiment which didn't make the cut was a kind of a familiar lament about shallow understanding of the tango culture abroad. The petitioners suggested, in particular, that "the Europeans understand Tango as music of the belle-époque", with exaggerated sensuality of a luxury cabaret, and don't appreciate tango's humble, underclass roots. ( Irony mode on - to see tango with all these supposed sins of exaggerated sensuality, with the woman thrown around exactly as the petition complained, one doesn't have to go any further than the cool promotional clip of one of its most famous signatories, Mora Godoy! :) ) 

Of course this kind of a broad-brush cultural suspicion didn't fly, and the UNESCO declaration carefully avoided blaming the "superficial foreigners" or calling for "proper authenticity". But one has to understand that it's so common for the locals to start fearing loss of identity just as their cultural heritage finally gains appreciation and popularity abroad. More on it below... 

Pledges and failures: The petitioners pledged to spend hundreds thousand dollars to support tango life in BsAs and Montevideo, including promoting historical venues, creating tango hostels for visiting trainees, a huge documentation and record center, an institute and a fund to support milongas ... even half a million dollars to establish a tango museum in Montevideo! But hardly anything has been delivered. When, in 2013, the governments reported on its progress, they had just one modest achievement to brag about, a newly organized Tango Research Center in Argentina. As we know, many traditional milongas in BsAs (both indoor and outdoor) are under a persistent bureaucratic attack, losing venues completely, experiencing temporary closures. The cradle of tango needs protection, and the UNESCO declaration continues to require action.

Is this a right way to balance the aspirations of the global vs. indigenous communities? The Convention on the Intangible Cultural Heritage is only 13 years old, although it has been informed by UNESCO's decades of cultural protection and community development experience. Its pros and cons have been recently reviewed by Farah and Tremolada (2014). The core issue is familiar to us, tango lovers: it is the issue of indigenous control of cultural heritage vs. globalized identity drawing from a variety of cross-fertilizing cultures. The global community may fear being robbed of its means of expression, while the indigenous community may fear an identity crisis.
Prof. Farah lectures on legal frameworks
of safeguarding cultural legacy

Intellectual property (IP) models, especially copyright, are also widely used for cultural assets. Importantly, copyright protects the asset only over the defined period of time; then it falls into public domain for all to use. IP protection is also narrowly focused on money rather than on community values / sacred values. IP = fair exchange of cultural assets for commercial value, at the expense of freedom of expression. SADAIC and AGADU have long followed the IP copyright model for aspects of tango culture, and tango music and poetry did become a commodity, which has also become targeted for export very early on. Because of this commodification and the global market focus, an alternative IP protection tool of "geographic indication", has become impossible to apply to the tango culture. 

But, as UNESCO uderscores, living cultural tradition isn't a mere reproduction or copying. It includes creativity and innovation and this makes it even harder to apply IP framework. Safeguarding cultural heritage is likewise more complicated than mere protection. It also includes an obligation to let the cultural practices develop and evolve in a continuous process of social involvement.

In 1982, World IP organization and UNESCO already tried drafting a new framework for national laws for regulating folklore (potentially including bans on fusion forms or distorted forms of traditional culture). In this framework, wherever money was at stake, practicing folklore would have required a license from the government. This idea was fundamentally at odds with the freedom of expression, and the proposal didn't go anywhere. But the experience of drafting the failed, overreaching model framework was seminal for UNESCO's subsequent fine-tuned efforts to safeguard cultural heritage of the humanity. As a result, UNESCO defined indigenous cultural heritage as a living, evolving form of expression practiced by the communities, rather than rigidly codified by the governments.

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