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Africa's Harissa, Raï & Kalela Receive UNESCO Heritage Status

Tunisia's spicy harissa paste, Morocco's Ra music, and Zambia's Kalela dance have all been named to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) list of intangible cultural heritage.

Shivam Dwivedi
Harissa is "an integral part of domestic provisions and the daily culinary and food traditions of Tunisian society
Harissa is "an integral part of domestic provisions and the daily culinary and food traditions of Tunisian society

Tunisia's spicy harissa paste, Morocco's Raï music, and Zambia's Kalela dance were named to Unesco's list of intangible cultural heritage. United Nations' cultural agency met in Rabat, Morocco, to review proposals for its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which aims to protect cultural traditions, practices, and knowledge.

There was no debate about including Tunisia's harissa - a paste made with sun-dried hot peppers, spices, and olive oil that can be found in almost every Tunisia restaurant and is exported worldwide.

According to Tunisia's application, harissa is "an integral part of domestic provisions and the daily culinary and food traditions of Tunisian society" and is typically prepared in a family or community setting. "It is a distinguishing feature of national culinary heritage as well as a factor of social cohesion."

The debates were more heated for Kalela, a traditional dance that originated during colonial times in Zambia's Luapula Province. According to the Unesco website, "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."

Countries such as Sweden, Saudi Arabia, and Botswana backed Zambia's bid, while Burkina Faso requested more information to strengthen its application. Kalela was chosen after 40 minutes of deliberation. The most recent dossier from an African country concerned Raï, a popular Algerian form of song. It was approved without debate, just like harissa.

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

The state initially prohibited it following independence, but it gained popularity in the 1980s, centered on 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 Cheb Hasni, the star of "sentimental Raï."

This year, Raï topped the charts again, thanks to the massive success of Franco-Algerian DJ Snake's "Disco Maghreb," a tribute to the iconic Oran record label at the heart of the genre. Culture Minister Soraya Mouloudjji said in a video conference from Algiers that including Raï on the list was "a decisive act of recognition by the world for my country."

The 2003 Convention for the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage seeks to protect and raise awareness of the "intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups, and individuals concerned." The list, according to Unesco, honours "human treasures" such as traditions, practices, knowledge, and all forms of culture.

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