The Best Kept Secrets, Sharing Caribbean Intangible Cultural Heritage with the World: An Interview with Alissandra Cummins

Folk music and culture, traditional knowledge and other forms of intangible cultural heritage have not been given the same respect and recognition in the Western canon as artefacts, buildings and property, but they are equally worthy of protection and efforts to preserve their sustainability. This is the strongly held belief of Alissandra Cummins, the Chief Editor of the International Journal of Intangible Heritage (IJIH), an annually published, refereed academic and professional English language journal, dedicated to the promotion of the understanding of all aspects of the intangible heritage, and the communication of research and examples of good professional practice.( First published in 2006, the journal is said to have been born out of the rapidly growing academic and professional interests in the intangible heritage, particularly following the widespread ratification by States in all parts of the world of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 2003 Intangible Heritage Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Editor of the IJIH since 2012, Cummins, who is also Director of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, is the only Caribbean person on the journal’s 14-member board. She regrets that the journal has not been fully embraced by academics in the region as an avenue for publishing their work, despite the publication being available in the libraries of all three campuses of The University of the West Indies and online via its website. She also suggested that the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) should be more proactive in encouraging its member states to participate in the UNESCO Convention. She noted that most Caribbean nations had signed on to the intergovernmental agreement, but few have implemented the provisions in the articles of the Convention. According to UNESCO, along with other international instruments that protect cultural heritage – such as the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage – the 2003 Convention is aimed at safeguarding the uses, representations, expressions, knowledge and techniques that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals, recognised as an integral part of their cultural heritage. This intangible heritage is found in forms such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe, and traditional craftsmanship knowledge and techniques.

Cummins, however, did recognise Jamaica, St Lucia and Suriname for having done important work, with the support of UNESCO, in hosting capacity building workshops to equip various responsible agencies with the necessary tools to implement the Convention. The recent inscription of Reggae Music of Jamaica on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity on 29th November, 2018, galvanized the interest of regional practitioners. Nominated as “having originated within a cultural space that was home to marginalized groups, mainly in Western Kingston, the Reggae music of Jamaica is an amalgam of numerous musical influences, including earlier Jamaican forms as well as Caribbean, North American and Latin strains”, this nomination became Jamaica’s second ‘element’ to be inscribed following the Maroon Heritage of Moore Town in 2008. Both nominations demonstrated the capacities of community practitioners, private promoters and the State Party to work together to achieve this global honour.

As Cummins has articulated, “in a region rich with many forms of cultural heritage expression it is quite surprising that the Caribbean has been able to secure only 10 such inscriptions on the Representative List.” That only 3 of these (with Belize’s Language, dance and music of the Garifuna, 2008) represent “the wealth of CARICOM traditional cultural expression”, make’s Reggae’s elevation to globally acknowledged ICH an example that Cummins wants to see every Caribbean country achieve in the future.

While acknowledging that intangible heritage has traditionally been respected in Asian and African cultures, Cummins also highlighted its relevance to the Caribbean where forced migration meant that surviving connections to historical roots were mostly exhibited through the ways in which foods are prepared, languages are structured, and musical and dance expressions are performed. She stressed that it was therefore important at the State level, working in conjunction with the communities and memory institutions (libraries, archives, museums), to create inventories of intangible heritage and encourage vibrant research programmes to support other safeguarding efforts. The writing and publishing of more information about the Caribbean’s traditional forms through journal’s such as IJIH provide strong support for these efforts. The heritage expert pointed out that this could not be a top-down approach because the Convention made it clear that the community had to be involved in establishing what constituted elements of intangible heritage in a country. She said that in order for something to be truly recognised as intangible cultural heritage it had to go beyond just common cultural practice, but it also needed established modes of transmission through generations and elements of sustainability.

Cummins, whose editorial stint with the IJIH runs until 2020 when the term of the current board comes to an end, emphasised that the Journal could be an important way for Caribbean academics and cultural practitioners to document, promote and contribute to the recording of intangible heritage in the region. She encouraged academics and students with conference papers in heritage, culture, museum or native studies to consider developing the papers further into journal submissions. Main papers are normally between 5,000 and 8,000 words in length with short papers, reports and reviews of between 2,000 and 5,000 words. Papers must be submitted in English and authors are responsible for their translation. Papers can be submitted at any time, though only those received by or before December 15 each year can be refereed in time for the annual early February meeting of the full Editorial Board and, if accepted, included in the next annual volume, which will be published in June of the same year. Those not meeting this deadline are automatically taken forward into the following year’s proposals for review. For more information about the submission process please click here.