Africa’s Harissa, Raï and Kalela Win UNESCO Heritage Status

Spicy harissa paste from Tunisia, Morocco’s raï music and Kalela dance from Zambia were selected on Thursday to join UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list.

The United Nations’ cultural agency met in the Moroccan capital of Rabat to examine proposals for its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which aims to protect cultural traditions, practices and knowledge.

There was no debate over whether to include Tunisia’s harissa – a paste made with sun-dried hot peppers, spices and olive oil, found in almost every restaurant in Tunisia and exported worldwide.

Tunisia’s application for the status noted that harissa is “an integral part of domestic provisions and the daily culinary and food traditions of Tunisian society”, usually prepared in a family or community setting.

“It is perceived as an identifying element of national culinary heritage, and a factor of social cohesion.”

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The debates were longer for Kalela, a traditional dance that originated during colonial times in the Luapula Province of Zambia.

“It was adopted by mine workers and used for entertainment at the Chief’s Palace during traditional ceremonies, funerals, harvest celebrations and other important occasions,” says the Unesco website.

Zambia’s bid was supported by countries including Sweden, Saudi Arabia and Botswana, while Burkina Faso asked for more details to strengthen the application.

It took 40 minutes of discussion for Kalela to make the cut. The last dossier from an African state concerned raï, a popular form of song from Algeria. Like harissa, it got through without debate.

Raï, whose biggest stars include Cheb Khaled and Cheb Mami, emerged in the closing decades of French colonial rule in Algeria, confronting social taboos and dealing with themes such as love, freedom, despair and the struggle against social pressures.

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It was initially banned by the state following independence, but from the 1980s onwards it surged in popularity, centering around the western city of Oran.

Then in 1992, Algeria descended into a decade-long war between authorities and jihadist militants who assassinated several raï singers, including the star of “sentimental raï”, Cheb Hasni.

This year, raï topped the charts again with the huge success of Franco-Algerian DJ Snake’s “Disco Maghreb” – a tribute to the emblematic Oran record company at the heart of the genre.

The 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage aims to safeguard and raise awareness about the “intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups and individuals concerned”.

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UNESCO stresses that the list honours traditions, practices, knowledge and all forms of culture that are “human treasures” in need of protection.

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