Vuvuzelas: Charming local custom, deafening drone, or cash cow?

In the run-up to the start of the 2010 Soccer World Cup last week, a great deal of attention has been focused on a colourful plastic trumpet that emits a B-flat drone, which resembles, variously, the sound of a furiously trumpeting herd of elephants, the buzzing of thousands of angry bees, or the approach of a gigantic swarm of locusts.

Charming Local Custom

“The official line is that the vuvuzela was originally made from a kudu horn and was traditionally used to summon people to gatherings. But the horn you see at soccer matches in South Africa today, originated from a tin horn that became popular with South African soccer fans around 15 years ago.” (Vuvuzela)

Local football fans seem to regard the sound of the Vuvuzela as beautiful, melodious music, judging from the enthusiasm and vigour with which they blow it. Or perhaps they are trying to blow the opposition off the field by using the Wall of Sound technique?

On a practical note, I’m curious as to how they manage to keep blowing the thing, which requires not just a sturdy and resilient pair of lips, but also a pair of extremely well-trained and capacious lungs, and stomach muscles to match, for an entire 90 minutes without stopping for a single instant!

No doubt it is exciting to acquire your first vuvuzela, particularly if it is bright and colourful, and to learn how to play it (it’s not all that easy!). And once you figure out how to produce a strong, sustained, unwavering note, I guess there is probably a period during which you’re swept up by the excitement and exhilaration of achieving this, and producing this sound together with up to 90,000 other people crammed into the stadium with you. I really can understand that.

But doesn’t the novelty wear off at some stage?  I mean, it’s not like playing a trumpet or a recorder, where you can play a scale, going up and down, by opening and closing small finger holes and adjusting your lips. It’s just one note, right? Pedro Espi-Sanchis, an enterprising individual, has put together a Vuvuzela Orchestra – check this out: YouTube and Vimeo. Now THAT is beautiful music!

Deafening Drone

Players on the field have complained that they find it impossible to hear their team-mates, and that the constant, unrelenting drone is distracting them and disturbing their concentration. Similarly, coaches find it difficult to communicate with players on the field, having to resort to vigorous sign language and facial expressions (see A brief history of the vuvuzela).

Quite apart from that, there is scientific evidence that the sound can damage your hearing. For instance, it was found that an average of 113 dBA was recorded 2 m from the bell of the vuvuzela; in a densely packed stadium, with almost everyone blowing these horns, this average would be far higher, approximately 130 dBA (see short article by Jan Burger that appeared in the March 2010 issue of Physics Comment here). Another article appeared in the South African Medical Journal of February 2010 , titled Vuvuzela – good for your team, bad for your ears, with a follow-up article appearing in April 2010, and titled Vuvuzela sound measurements.

“The long, plastic, trumpet-shaped vuvuzela was found to emit an ear piercing noise of 127 decibels – louder than a lawnmower (90 decibels) and a chainsaw (100 decibels). Extended exposure at just 85 decibels puts us at a risk of permanent noise induced hearing loss. When subjected to 100 decibels or more, hearing damage can occur in just 15 minutes.” (UK Telegraph article of 14 June 2010, titled World Cup 2010 Fans warned about hearing loss from vuvuzelas)

If you want to protect your hearing, and to be able to speak with the people around you, the only solution is to use ear plugs. In fact, the demand has far outstripped the supply, with pharmacies running out of stock faster than they can restock! And I noticed that some spectators (a couple of little kids) were wearing large ear-muffs at last night’s match between Italy and Paraguay.

Television audiences, particularly overseas, it seems, have been complaining to their broadcasters too. They have asked whether it is possible to block out the sound during live broadcasts: Can you block out the blare of the vuvuzelas? Although broadcasters such as the BBC have looked into this, it is apparently very tricky:

“A vuvuzela is tuned – to use the term loosely – at the B flat below middle C, and has a similar frequency to speech tones, says Trevor Cox, president of the Institute of Acoustics. This makes it particularly tricky for broadcasters to tune out, as to do so would dampen the commentators’ voices – and not in a good way.” (Can you block out the blare of the vuvuzelas?)

This is echoed by the Centre for Digital Music in London who have come up with an audio-processing plugin for your computer (What’s all this about the vuvuzela?) – but it doesn’t work on the telly. 🙂

Tuning out all sound from the pitch would reduce the atmosphere and excitement of a live broadcast, because it also tunes out the noise from the crowd, in addition to the sound of the vuvuzelas. Nonetheless, the BBC for one is investigating this further (World Cup 2010: BBC may offer vuvuzela-free matches). It should be interesting to see what solution they come up with.

There are online petitions, which viewers can sign if they have had enough of the noise, at http://www.banvuvuzela.com/ and http://www.antivuvuzela.org/, and their signatures will be forwarded to FIFA. Whether it’ll have any impact, is another matter.

FIFA has declared that there will definitely NOT be a ban on the vuvuzela, regardless of the number of complaints they receive:

President of FIFA Sepp Blatter recently twitted “To answer all your messages re the vuvuzelas. I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound. I don’t see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country. Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?” (Wikipedia: Vuvuzela)

Although one of the local organisers, Danny Jordaan, has said a day or two ago that they might consider banning the instrument (see Vuvuzelas may be banned, reveals organising chief Danny Jordaan), fellow organiser, Rich Mkhondo, has said that there is no way it will be banned:

“Vuvuzelas are here to stay and will never be banned,” said Rich Mkhondo, a spokesperson for the local World Cup organising committee. “People love the vuvuzelas around the world,” he said. “Only a minority are against vuvuzelas. There has never been a consideration to ban vuvuzelas.” (FIFA rules out a ban on vuvuzelas)

Cash Cow

Predictably, all this bad publicity, however, has been excellent for the pockets of the manufacturers of these instruments:

“It seems like the bad publicity has been good for us,” said Brandon Bernado, owner of the vuvuzela.co.za website and a factory he said could churn out at least 10,000 of the instruments every day.

“We’re completely sold out. Every time we manufacture more, the next morning by nine we’re sold out,” he told Reuters.

The vuvuzela industry is worth 50 million rand ($6.45 million) in South Africa and Europe, according to Cape Town-based Neil van Schalkwyk, who developed the vuvuzela seven years ago. (FIFA rules out a ban on vuvuzelas)

Hm, that’s a nice bit of income from what is essentially a piece of colourful plastic.

The manufacturers have come up with a solution from their side: they have modified the design of the mouthpiece, so that the new version of the instrument is a little quieter (World Cup 2010: Vuvuzela manufacturers introduce quieter version that will make 20 decibels less noise than original). Whether people will want to make less noise is, of course, quite another matter. 🙂 Either way, someone’s making a LOT of moolah!

Debates

The debates around the Vuvuzela and its use at the 2010 Soccer World Cup have been raging in the printed media, across our television screens, on the radio waves, and throughout the internet. Everyone has a view, and everyone takes a side.

Having read some of the comments in response to online newspaper articles and blog posts, I find it interesting that, whenever someone says they don’t like the sound, they are promptly accused of being Eurocentric, colonialists, imperialists, un-African, un-South-African, and – ouch! twist that knife in – racist. Which is, like, the most serious, damning, unforgivable, insult, EVER.

“It is true, most of the people who are unhappy, freaked, offended, furious – whatever about the vuvuzela are white and are European. The South Africans who complain about it also trend to the paler complexions – and they aren’t real soccer fans.” (The vuvuzela must stay)

Eina!

On the other side of the spectrum, John Leicester in Stop the vuvuzela madness wrote most eloquently:

“The constant drone of cheap and tuneless plastic horns is killing the atmosphere at the World Cup.

Where are the loud choruses of “Oooohhsss” from enthralled crowds when a shot scorches just wide of the goalpost? And the sharp communal intake of breath, the shrill “Aaahhhhss,” when a goalkeeper makes an acrobatic, match-winning save? Or the humorous/moving/offensive football chants and songs?”

“Attending or watching a match should be a feast for both the eyes and the ears. Those two senses work better together, each augmenting the other.

Sounds should ebb and flow like tides with the fortunes on the field. That adds to the drama. Fans reacting with their voices to action on the pitch, to events in the stadium and to each other’s sounds, songs and chants are part of football’s theater.

A sudden crowd silence can also tell a story – perhaps of the heartbreak of a late, defeat-inflicting goal or of the collective shock of seeing a player horribly injured by a bad tackle.

Sometimes, you should even be able to hear a coach bark orders from the touchline or players shouting at each other for the ball.”

Just have a look at the comments on his article to see how deeply it has polarised fans and opponents of the Vuvuzela.

Personally…

Personally, I think it is awesome that all these countries are coming here to play truly world class soccer in our cities. I think we are enormously privileged to witness this event, which is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event for many of us, right here on our doorstep.

I think it is exciting to see all these excellent international teams right here, and to be exposed to their playing styles and to the traditions and cultures of their supporters.

I for one would love to see and hear the fans of all the overseas teams cheering for their teams, celebrating their goals, singing their songs, and playing their instruments – in addition to hearing the fans of our local boys cheering for Bafana Bafana.

Regardless of how you feel about our vuvuzela, it has certainly become the most controversial instrument (of music? or torture?) of the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa and the distinctive, unforgettable sound that viewers around the entire world will forever associate with this event.

9 thoughts on “Vuvuzelas: Charming local custom, deafening drone, or cash cow?

  1. Would you believe the vuvuzelas were featured on the Canadian news? The story was about their soaring prices during the games. Reggie, every time I see/hear something about the games in SA, I think of you. I’ve learned so much about SA from reading your posts. I hope all goes well in your beautiful country during the games.

  2. Yes, as said above, very informative piece Reggie 🙂
    I wasn’t too keen on the vuvu before but I am really quite enjoying them now! [Except when my neighbour blows one loudly before 8am.] I can hear the fan park from my place and at a distance they sound *exactly* like a swarm of bees!
    I was at the game last night and of course there was plenty of vuvu action. With ear plugs in the noise level was absolutely fine, but without it was uncomfortably loud. What surprised me is that while on the tv they sound like a monotonous drone, at the game there was a great variety in the sound. It didn’t feel like they were played non-stop either, but were definitely played whenever something happened. They really managed to amplify the mood – excitement, disappointment, celebration. Who knew vuvus could convey all the different emotions associated with the game?! There was a bit of singing and chanting but it was pretty much overwhelmed by all the vuvuzelas. They were a bit part of the atmosphere and so wonderfully African. No-one is more surprised than me to be Team Vuvuzela!
    That said, the sound was very tiring and I certainly wouldn’t want prolonged exposure to it.
    I’m also rather fascinated by how much controversy they are causing worldwide. I read on one news site earlier today (can’t find the link now I’m afraid) that one can adjust the sound settings on some tvs to cut out (or down) sounds below a certain frequency, and this really works to minimize the vuvu sound.

    • Congratulations on surviving Monday night’s game, Helen! We were all cosy at home, huddled in front of the little heater, swaddled in blankets, and warming up internally with cups of tea. – And marvelling at all the tough supporters who were braving the bucketing rain and the close-to-zero temperatures! Thank you for sharing your experiences – it must have been a wonderful atmosphere there!

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