Jamaica Seeks to Add Reggae to a UNESCO Cultural Heritage List
Posted November 23, 2018 4:02 p.m. EST
Updated November 23, 2018 4:07 p.m. EST
Wa-ka, wa-ka is the sound of the first riffs that open up Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up.” Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam” begins with slow-paced horns that give way to her cool cadence. Drums pause with the guitars at the top of Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It.”
It’s reggae: smooth, lovely, cool, collected, classic.
Jamaica, where the sound first gave a voice to the oppressed and the hopeful, is now seeking a new honor for the genre. As early as Monday, UNESCO will announce a decision on the country’s application to put reggae on the world body’s list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
“It will be a major achievement for Jamaica if we are successful in having the designation declared by UNESCO,” Olivia Grange, the country’s culture minister, said at a news conference last month.
Unlike UNESCO’s World Heritage List, which includes sites considered important to humanity like the pyramids of Giza in Egypt or the Taj Mahal in India, the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity documents elements and practices of different cultures that are deserving of recognition. Another, UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, includes endangered elements of a culture that are at risk of fading away.
The two lists currently have 470 elements from 117 countries. A UNESCO committee will choose this year’s additions from Nov. 26 to Dec. 1.
Lucía Iglesias Kuntz, a UNESCO spokeswoman, declined to comment on the record but provided a copy of Jamaica’s application, which was submitted in September with relatively little fanfare. Janice Lindsay, a principal director in the country’s culture ministry and the designated contact on the application, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Reggae, which rose to prominence in the 1960s, often celebrates Jah, or God; ganja, or marijuana; and Ras Tafari, also known as Haile Selassie, the former Ethiopian emperor, whom Rastafarians revere as the messiah. It is also meant to put listeners in a calm groove.
As the sound bridged continents and gave the disparaged a way to heal and sing, it inspired many other genres, including dancehall; reggaeton, which is popular in Latin America, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic; and reggae fusion, which includes elements of jazz, hip-hop or pop and is popular in the United States and Europe.
Reggae has also been a pillar in the foundation of hip-hop. Songs like “Bam Bam” have been sampled countless times by artists including Jay-Z, Kanye West and Lauryn Hill.
Jamaica is hoping to protect this facet of its rich culture by having radio stations that continuously play reggae and interview people in the world of the genre. It is also mounting public exhibitions and presentations on reggae music in museums and will celebrate Reggae Month in February, the birth month of Bob Marley.
And the country is not the only one hoping to add elements of its culture to the UNESCO heritage lists. Panama nominated its ritual and festive expressions of the Congo culture, the Bahamas put in a bid for its strawcraft and Georgia wants the honor to go to its wrestling.