What is that noise?! Bees? Cicadas? Space invasion? Is it Music?!?!
Ah, but of course, I’m talking about the mighty vuvuzela, a long-ish plastic horn that is ubiquitous at South African football matches. It’s proved to be controversial in the lead-up to and now early stages of the World Cup, held in various stadia around South Africa. On a practical level, coaches and players have complained that it hampers on-field communication and television production professionals have noted that it dampens the voice of the announcer, making the play-by-play difficult to hear. On a more intangible level, some fans and viewers have found the noise to be supremely irritating and distracting. They lament: “Why can’t they just sing, like everyone else?”
While acknowledging that the vuvuzela is not as elegant as, say, a French Horn, proponents of the practice note that it plays an important role in South Africa’s idiosyncratic football-fan culture, which also includes modified miner’s helmets decked out in club or national colors. Some go as far as to argue that it derives from a traditional African instrument, made from the horn of a kudu antelope; although it’s really just a mass-produced, plastic version of an old, tin bicycle horn that vuvuzela inventor Freddie “Saddam” Maake began bringing to matches in the mid-1960s. Regardless of its origin or its elegance, it is obvious that the vuvuzela is undeniably a major aspect of the South African football experience. To that end, we should not condemn this humble horn, but embrace it in true expression of the values of tolerance, internationalism, and fun.
Football is different over the World: played with knotted up rags in Brazilian favelas, under the omnipresent threat of hooligans in Moscow, and with uprights and a pigskin in the United States. Each has its own unique cultural tweaks, which makes it educational as well as entertaining (although hooligans may not meet either criterion). We should not seek to undermine local traditions out of respect for the host nation, because it is a chance for us to learn more about different cultures, and because, let’s face it, it’s not that hard to tune out what (on TV) amounts to little more than background noise.
Also, if someone handed me a vuvuzela and told me that it would make a loud, silly noise, I imagine that it would be nearly impossible to resist trying it out.
But this is about music. Why can’t they sing, just like everyone else? Why must they play thousands of giant kazoos that can register sounds at 127 decibels at the same time for 90 minutes straight without any semblance of organization or attention to tone, melody, or rhythm? Isn’t that just noise?
Maybe it is, but unlike simple noise, the vuvuzela (as an item of football culture) satisfies the social requirements of music. When fans begin singing a club song all around the pitch, it binds the players and the fans in common struggle for victory on the field and into a community in between matches. Would it matter if the fans sing poorly?
So when watching the World Cup this month, take a moment to listen to that buzz in the background and decide for yourself whether this is noise or music, an irritating drone or a buzz of excitement