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At World Cup, vuvuzela may give South African music a bad name

Photo: Flickr/AfricanGoals2010

In this World Cup, as in any, there will be flare-ups: ill-timed yellow cards, excessive slide tackles and questionable off-sides calls.

But the tournament in South Africa, the first for an African nation, features a more novel source of frustration for fans and footballers alike: the vuvuzela.

The seemingly innocuous plastic horn has proven more contentious than even the most galling episodes of soccer injustice, like the infamous handball that allowed France to vault into the tournament over Ireland last year. That incident threatened to escalate into a full-blown diplomatic row, with the Irish government lodging an official protest and the offending player mulling retirement.

But the furor over the vuvuzela has somehow eclipsed that, and threatens to seize the spotlight at what promises to be an otherwise riveting World Cup. The horns are throwaway stadium fare in South Africa, and in small groups they can produce simple rhythms through call and response. The arrangements often accompany the more traditional song and dance common at football matches, especially in South Africa, where anti-apartheid protest anthems occupy an important place in the country’s rich musical history.

But none of that is audible to the hundreds of millions of fans watching the tournament on television across the world. What those viewers hear is the cumulative sound of tens of thousands of people blowing indiscriminately into the vuvuzelas at once: an incessant droning noise, not unlike a swarm of locusts.

Commentators have complained, on and off the air, that the noise makes it difficult to hear much of anything at the stadium. Match announcers fear the crowds will miss important admonitions, especially in cases of emergency. And players and coaches say the mind-numbing drone of the vuvuzelas makes it difficult to sleep, let alone communicate with one another on the field. Argentine footballer Lionel Messi said it was “like being deaf.”

Fans have responded, too. By Monday morning, more than 74,000 had joined a call to ban the instrument, at the newly-registered banvuvuzela.com. The term “vuvuzela” was one of the top trending items on Twitter. And an especially inventive English fan created an iPhone app in which players can venture throughout the stadium, collecting and banishing as many vuvuzelas as possible. “While the vuvuzela will be present at the World Cup games, livid soccer fans at least can get the satisfaction of blotting out the horns in the virtual world,” the developer, Chuck Edward, said in a statement.

World Cup officials seemed briefly to mull a possible vuvuzela ban in response to the complaints. South African organizers said they would consider restricting use of the instruments if fans threw them onto the field. But Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, the international soccer federation which organizes the tournament, responded to the speculation in a post on Twitter. “I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound,” Blatter wrote, adding in a follow-up: “Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?”

But while the song of the vuvuzelas may live on, some fear the droning noise on television will leave international viewers with a negative impression of South African music, which has an otherwise rich cultural legacy and an important place in the country’s history of social and political upheaval. Pedro Espi-Sanchis, a renowned South African musicologist who tours with a youth vuvuzela orchestra, said he opposes a ban on the instruments, because of how central they have become to the South African football experience.

“People are very attached, the fans are very attached to the vuvuzelas,” Espi-Sanchis said in a telephone interview from Johannesburg, where he is performing. “It’s too late to ban them.”

In what he called a “solution to the noise,” Espi-Sanchis modified the vuvuzela to produce seven discrete notes, allowing his orchestra to play chords and melodies to accompany traditional soccer anthems, as well as the one-note rhythms of the conventional vuvuzelas. And to celebrate the instrument’s place in the country’s culture, Espi-Sanchis offered to lead a vuvuzela performance at the inaugural World Cup match between South Africa and Mexico. The tournament’s organizers declined.

The result, Espi-Sanchis fears, may be a bad name for South African music.

“People all over the world — particularly the people who watch it on television, who don’t have any other contact with South African culture — for those people, the musical legacy of the 2010 World Cup is going to be that sound,” Espi-Sanchis said. “And that’s really sad, because South Africa is one of the most musical countries in the world.”

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