Thursday, December 6, 2012
Venezuela's Dancing Devils make UN World Heritage List
Venezuela's historic and very unique tradition of masked devil dancing, known as the Diablos Danzantes, which takes place in some 14 towns and villages each year to celebrate the Catholic Feast of Corpus Christi, has been chosen by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for inclusion in its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
The other six traditions chosen included: a chanted form of oral poetry practiced by the Bedouin of Oman; the Fiesta de Patios in Cordova, Spain, which preserves traditional songs and dance; the Mesir Macunu festival in Turkey, which commemorates the recovery of the mother of Suleiman the magnificent from a disease; the elaborate process of creating Romanian Horezu ceramics; and the practise of falconry in Austria and Hungary.
The decision to include Venezuela's foremost folk tradition on its list came after a week-long meeting of the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Committee at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.
The UN-body hopes that by highlighting disappearing traditions in this way it can help prevent them from fading into extinction and protect the world’s intangible cultural heritage for future generations.
The spectacular masked dancing festivals celebrated in Venezuela on the moveable feast of Corpus Christi (the 9th Thursday after Holy Thursday) continue a centuries-old tradition brought from Spain.
In the country's sugar and cacao plantations, where large numbers of slaves were brought from Africa to sweat for Spanish masters in the fields and forests, the masked dances took on a special significance.
They represented an inversion of the usual power relationship between master and slave, when men with masks to hide their faces took over the town and made mischief without fear of retribution. It was also the one day when a group usually barred from entering the church during Sunday mass could express its defiance and rejection of the status quo.
Nowadays, people dance as a way of requesting a favour from God, to help a sick family member or to resolve a difficult situation for the family. The men who have asked for this intervention are called "promeseros" ("pledgers") because they make a solemn pledge to dance in the festivities every year for a certain number of years or for life, known as "pagando promesa" ("paying the pledge").
The devil dancing begins the day before Corpus Christi with a meeting of the Devil Dancer's Confraternity, private dances and blessing ceremonies with holy water, scapulars, amulets and prayers to protect the men and boys who are about to dance from any spiritual harm.
From sunrise the devils parade through town, dancing around to the sound of cuatro (four-stringed guitar like a ukelele) and maracas, and causing mischief, mayhem and general devilment. About midday, the masked devils gather in front of the church, led by the chief devil and his whip-wielding capataz (overseer). In front of the gathered crowds, they make a mock attack on the church that is repelled by the priest holding aloft the consecrated hosts of the eucharist.
Three times the devils attack and three times they are repelled. Finally, with good having triumphed over evil the devils prostrate themselves before the host. With their masks now removed, the devils continue to dance through the streets and the party begins in earnest.
The most celebrated devil dancers are in San Francisco de Yare, which is close to Caracas in the Valles del Tuy. Dressing from head to foot in red, the Yare devils carry maracas and wear multicolored horned masks made from papier mache.
In the coastal cacao plantation of Chuao, famous for its high-quality cocoa beans, isolation has helped preserve many early elements of devil dancing, including costumes made of colored rags and black and white masks rooted in African traditions.
The Dancing Devils of Yare in Literature
How the Dancing Devils of Yare Got Their Distinctive Red Costumes
Short Documentary on the Dancing Devils of Chuao