The general public regards the UNESCO world heritage convention as a kind of “Landscape, eras, museums” movement, but it’s not just romantic canyons and old monasteries that enjoy the protection of the programme. One of the organization’s less well known lists containing intellectual cultural heritage is a collection of humanity’s intangible achievements – customs, creation stories, crafts, and, particularly: music. Browsing through this list is like being let loose in our grandparents’ attic, rummaging through old stuff, and coming across many astonishing and moving things. This year the PONT Festival, which specializes in such “treasure hunting tours in the attic”, concentrates on the coastal regions of the Mediterranean Sea, and aims to present the customs of the Easter celebrations.
UNESCO was founded in 1946 as the cultural, educational, and scientific organization of the United Nations, with the aim of cooperation between peoples in these areas. The inscription of protected cultural traditions did not start until 2009. The first two years saw 90 new items each, and since then the list has grown by about 30 cultural traditions a year, making its current total about 400 items. It includes Mongolian calligraphy, a Georgian method of making wine, and the Slovenian passion play, but most of the traditions listed are clearly musical, and often music forms part of the traditions whose reason for being on the list is not fundamentally musical.
This year’s additions to the list include the Greek rebetiko, the Western Balkan Kolo, the Irish uilleann pipes, and an Indonesian canoe-making technique. It is important to understand that these are not protected designations of origin similar to those for Tokaj wine or Parma ham. These lists are basically moral protection, and lay an obligation upon the state submitting the nomination to safeguard these traditions. The best-known Hungarian example is the “táncház” or dance house method, which is considered to be one of the best practices of safeguarding tradition worldwide. Also on the UNESCO register are the Busó festivities at carnival time in Mohács, the folk art of the Matyó, and the Kodály concept.
The first PONT Festival was centred around the cultures of Turkic peoples of Central Asia, but in 2018 the focus will be on the traditions of the Mediterranean and Easter customs. What does this mean in terms of the music on offer? For instance the Sardinian male choir, Andalusian flamenco, and Croatian bećarac. Customs from Hungary are also represented: Ági Szalóki’s concert of some material from her latest folk CD, Sára Tímár’s Reformist folk chants and passion songs, and a joint programme with Romano Drom and the Berán Quartet combining Roma folklore with the sound of a classical string quartet.
The canto a tenore is a tradition of singing a cappella (without accompaniment) from the island of Sardinia, and is particularly linked to Easter. For Sardian male choirs Holy Week before Easter is the high point of the year, and they prepare all year for this occasion. The four singers of the choirs also represent four parts, which are called (from highest to lowest) boche, mesu boche, contra, and bassu. As in Corsica, in Sardinia too the male choirs have a sacred repertoire, linked to Holy Week, and a secular one. In the festival one of the most famous Sardinian male choirs of our times, the Cuncordu e Tenore de Orosei will present this tradition.
The bećarac can be found in South Baranya in Slavonia, a region of Croatia closest to Hungary. Of Turkish origin, the word bećarac means bachelor in Croatian. This music is dramaticized, and is provocative, full of flirtation and humour. It is performed by a solo singer and choir, with an accompaniment provided by a tambura or a band of bagpipes. One of the most skilled performers of this is the Vujicsics Ensemble from Hungary, who know everything there is to know about Western Balkan traditions, and they will be performing at the PONT Festival.
“Of all my memories of the first dance festival meet on 28 March 1982, the clearest is when I was standing on the main stage of the arena with a clarinet in my hand, and without amplification, which had just been switched off, we started playing acoustic music for the enormous crowd that had gathered there for the Vujicsics dance house. There was no technical problem; somebody just decided to put an end to the programme – it had overrun. The [political] regime was already softening, and we sensed that somebody wanted to snatch away our right to speak, to make music, to sing, so of course I felt something of a hero. I don’t think I’ve ever played any of my instruments as loudly, as enthusiastically, as I did then.”
Mihály Borbély (Vujicsics Ensemble)
Slightly farther from Hungary, along the Mediterranean coast, lies Andalusia, where we find one of the best known UNESCO-protected traditions, the flamenco. Its brisque tempo and staccato are full of tension, and it more often expresses pain than pleasure. Flamenco performers are at least as much respected for their expressive performance, for living the music, as for their musical abilities. In flamenco the singing is usually accompanied by the guitar, but clapping is a basic, integral part of the music. The audience at the PONT Festival will be able to see an authentic trio. Just like the Sardinian tenores, as well as a concert the flamenco musicians too will be giving a workshop where we can learn from them. The organizers will give places to a limited number of applicants.
How fortunate it is that the UNESCO register seems to have been invented to be the basic material for an exciting family festival: there will be Croatian-style honey-cake making, a presentation of the Cremona violin-making (Stradivari), and the method of making gobelin-style rugs, Mediterranean folk tales will be told, there will be ham-tasting, egg-painting, a photographic exhibition, a Sicilian puppet show, street theatre on stilts – the varied programmes of the PONT Festival will be held in the usual venue, the Várkert Bazár.
This article first appeared in BSF Magazine, published by Budapest Spring Festival. To view the magazine in full, please click here.