Traditional music as "intangible cultural heritage” in the postmodern world




Li, Mai, active 2013

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Compared with its roles in pre-modern societies, traditional music, previously called “folklore,” has been playing very different roles in the globalized world. These new roles, however, are rarely articulated in a systematic manner. While most discourse on the contemporary use of traditional music comes from the case studies of ethnomusicologists, the concept of “intangible cultural heritage,” which is usually associated with the initiatives of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage (including traditional music), provides a new perspective to understand the new roles that traditional music plays in the postmodern world. A systematic examination of these roles is crucial, because it allows an in-depth analysis of the hidden power relations behind the contemporary use of traditional music. Furthermore, with the idea of “salvation from disappearing” being more and more problematic in contemporary practice, the project of preserving traditional music cannot be firmly grounded unless its contemporary values are demonstrated. In order to systematically identify and analyze the contemporary use of traditional music, this paper examines the current literature on intangible cultural heritage and the related international initiatives undertaken by the United Nations and its specialized agencies such as UNESCO and UNDP, in combination with the major issues raised by ethnomusicologists regarding the use of traditional music in creative industries. Using two major case studies–Kunqu and HAN Hong’s new Tibetan music–to demonstrate the aesthetic, political, economic and ethical dimensions of the use of traditional music in contemporary society, I argue that there is a fifth dimension, the social dimension, of the value of traditional music in the postmodern condition. The articulation of this social dimension of the contemporary use of traditional music serves to establish its universal relevance and to identify its unique character that makes it a powerful tool to serve as a counter-hegemonic force.




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