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"Czech" Verbuňk Recognized by UNESCO


On Nov. 25 UNESCO unveiled the Third Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The verbuňk dance, one of the most virtuosic Czech "folk" dances, was among the forty-three citations. The result was decided by an eighteen-member international jury appointed by the UNESCO Director-General and came after a two-year selection process. The citation gives a general description. It does not, however, address much more. For example, why is the dance Czech (Moravian)? What influences came together in the formation of this tradition? Is it more deserving of recognition or "preservation" than other art forms in the region?

The dance is obviously the product of complex multicultural interactions, but these happened more in Central Europe (a region), more specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire, rather than in the Czech Republic (a political entity). The name was adopted into dialect from the German werbung, "recruitment." The Czech verb verbovat, from the same German word, means roughly "to conscript" or "to recruit" soldiers. The music for the dance, "New Hungarian Songs" according to the UNESCO site, is also not Czech. (By the way, this includes cimbál bands, too, since they are part of this Central European culture as well.) So to my eyes, this citation is most interesting for the tension that it illustrates between the trend to localize culture and culture's concurrent regional character. At present in the Czech Republic, such localized phenomena tend to become symbolic of codified "national" culture. This is not new. The folk culture of South Moravia has been regarded as a bountiful heartland of "authentic" and "living" Czech culture since the nineteenth century.

One wonders how, exactly, the dance was singled out. (I suspect that I know or have met at least a few of the scholars involved.) In Czech Radio's report Czech Minister of Culture Beneš claims to want, in the coming years, to strengthen Czech representation on the UNESCO intangible heritage list. He suggests nominating, "for example, pre-Lent parades in Hlinecek or the Ride of the Kings [a spring ceremony] in Vlčnov." ("Podle Michala Beneše bude Česko v nejbližších letech usilovat o to, aby se na seznam nehmotného kulturního dědictví dostaly například masopustní obchůzky z Hlinecka nebo vlčnovská Jízda králů.") This begs the question of why the dance was singled out. And, moreover, why and how such regional cultural activities get narrowed down to single towns. (Even the verbuňk is listed as mostly from Kyjov, and partly from Zlín.)

I started thinking about these issues last year when I was at a lecture by Joseph Roach. He claimed to be "indifferently" critical of the Intangible Heritage project. If it hasn't been done I think that someone should look for any correlation between the makeup of the jury (by country) and the results of the proclamations. For example, a newly appointed Czech member is now serving on the jury and we get Czech and Slovak recognition. Does this system disadvantage places that can't produce or nominate "experts" with the appropriate ethnographic credentials (or political connections) to serve on such juries. Their deliberations obviously have great power since the designated "traditions" receive even more research interest (maybe), funding, and validation while non-recognized traditions may fall by the wayside. In addition, the process inevitably institutionalizes and codifies expressive culture in a way that may have unpredictable and long-lasting effects. UNESCO should present more self-aware and critical portraits in the future.

In case you don't read Czech or get to the UNESCO site, the dance is a solo men's dance that features leaps and improvization. The singer is also expected to sing a song text during the slow introductory section. As with all dance types in the region, the verbuňk is always accompanied by music. The beginning is slow and warm-up like and the ending is faster (that's when the leaping comes in). The major sections are usually separated by sung verses during which the dances stands, faces the audience, and "orates" (for lack of a better term). (After having sat through a lot of these last summer during at the competition during the International Folk Festival in Straznice, I can tell you that the singing is not usually as polished as the dance. Almost every melody that I've heard features a large-interval leap--a fourth, fifth, or more--somewhere toward the beginning. This meant that the melodies often covered at least an octave. The performers were generally not able to sing melodies with such a wide range.)

The Slovakian fujara, a fascinating wind instrument that only produces sounds on two overtone series, was also recognized in the third proclamation.


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