Dancing devils, Armenian poem vie for heritage list spot

Safeguarding art and cultural traditions, including the bizarre or exotic, is UNESCO's goal with its World Heritage List contest.

PARIS — An array of little-known and sometimes outlandish traditions vie for international recognition when the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO meets next week to select new additions to its world heritage list.

Venezuelan Dancing Devils and the Armenian epic poem "Daredevils of Sassoun" are among the more exotic contenders for a spot on the intangible heritage list, created in 2003 to safeguard the world's art forms and cultural rituals.

Some 51 contenders are hoping for recognition this year from the Paris-based UN organization for Education, Science and Culture, from hat-weaving to folk-singing, embroidery and falconry.

The tiny southern African kingdom of Lesotho hopes to win a spot in the UN ranks for "Letsema" — its pragmatic tradition of "getting together to accomplish heavy tasks." Such tasks, it says, can include collecting stones or threshing wheat while others sing, read recite poetry or ululate.

Mongolia, having learned selection was unlikely, withdrew one entry — knuckle-bone shooting, an activity where people flick marbles at polished sheep ankle bones while singing "Hail you, friend" to each other. Contenders will be assessed from Dec. 3 to 7, with winners announced at the end of each day.

"If a country has a particular way of laying a table for Christmas dinner, dressing for a wedding, or celebrating an historical event, then that's an intangible act," said Cecile Duvelle, secretary of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

"Our aim is to help countries keep these traditions alive and ensure they are passed on through generations to maintain a common sense of identity," she said.

Founded in 1945, UNESCO is best known for its World Heritage List, created 40 years ago, which includes around 1,000 natural and cultural sites considered of outstanding universal value.

More recently the agency has focused on safeguarding "intangible" culture such as language and traditions. Past additions include the art of the French gastronomic meal, Portuguese Fado singing and Spanish Flamenco.

Nations can apply for a grant from the convention's $6.5 million annual budget to help save a custom thought to be dying.

The majority, however, seek inclusion on the "representative list," which comes with no financial aid, but provides recognition and media attention.

To qualify for inclusion, nations have to show the activity is part of their cultural heritage and promotes social cohesion.

The Armenian epic poem known as "Daredevils of Sassoun" or "David of Sassoun," for example, dates back to the 7th century and is recited for social gatherings or to children for fun.

Meanwhile, Venezuela's Dancing Devils of Corpus Christi emerged in the 17th century: "Devils" in bright red costumes and ferocious masks parade through the streets and chase locals, while being whipped by a "captain" or chief devil.

The climax comes when the devils finally surrender, depicting the triumph of good over evil.