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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 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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  • soccer fan

    what a great post! i’m a life-long scocer fan and i had NO CLUE what those htings were. keep up the great work, NTK.

  • vicki

    The Facebook page to ban them has been growing at the rate of a couple of thousand people per hour.

  • Bev

    I didn’t know what that noise was either- all I knew was that I couldn’t hear the commentators. I won’t be watching anymore matches, I can tell you that.

  • Jose

    Lighten up! It’s the greatest sporting event in the planet, enjoy it! (vuvuzelas and all…)

  • Gennaro Gama

    why are people picking on the vuvuzelas? it happens everywhere. Let people have fun. if it gets in your way of watching TV, switch to a baseball game. tough sh#t. This is not about music, it is about soccer. Go play Chopin and leave us alone

  • Rashid

    African music will not be judged by the sound of the vuvuzela, and I don’t say that in a demeaning way for the vuvuzela. I enjoyed it since I first heard it at the Confederations Cup and I was disappointed to hear that FIFA was considering the silencing of that remarkable sound. Luckily that did not happen. There are so many people who enjoy it, as it is evident by its popularity in the stadiums. African and non-African alike blow it in the stands. TV producers can implement different audio filtering technologies to limit the sound if they choose, however that would be bad for the tournament. The vuvuzela will be the signature of the 2010 World Cup. And to those players who complain about it: come on, you are pros. Get over it.

  • Eric R

    I think it is funny that these plastic horns are getting so much press… supposedly?? someone in afica just came up with the idea a few yrs ago??? that is bunk…i remember my brother and i having same horns at college football games and baseball game with my father 30 yrs ago in the USA… these horns arent anything new ..just being abused maybe…

  • Mike

    The noise is distracting the players, number one. It is also annoying to the viewers both in the stands and watching TV.. For those watching TV it’s like a beeHive has set up shop in your television………….nice! Thanks so much for that…. The South Africans need to show a bit of consideration for the players AND viewers and trash those stupid and annoying horns!!!!

  • Kay naidoo

    leave the vuvuzelas alone. This is Africa
    The country and all it’s races have come together.
    let us celebrate the togetherness.
    rather than worry about the VUVUZELA.
    i was there and enjoyed the beauty of the country.