Satan’s Instrument? The Vuvuzela and Noisemaking in World Football

The current controversy over the vuvuzela at the Confederations Cup in South Africa is hardly the first debate about “artificial” noisemakers used by football fans. In different forms, their use has been common across the world for over a century. So is the vuvuzela an organic instrument of South African football culture we should respect, or a commercialised nuisance that should be banned?

The Rattle

The first popular noisemaker in football — and one that made a sound to make even a vuvuzela wince — was the wooden rattle in Britain.

Though appearing as early as 1900, the rattle became the ubiquitous din to football matches in Britain after the world war. They had been popularised during the war as a way of warning people of gas attacks: their simple noise making capacity saved many lives. Holding the handle and spinning the rattle made a loud clacking noise, and this was soon transported to the terraces.

A wooden football rattle

Football rattles fell into disuse in the 1960s in English football, as the cloth cap-era of working class support began to morph into something trendier, and supporters began to create their own songs and chants that rendered the use of the rattle obsolete.

Writing in the Guardian, Simon Burnton hoped that “perhaps South Africa can learn from the loud wooden rattles that soundtracked British football in the post-war era – and fell out of favour when everyone realised just how annoying they were. I can only hope that one day soon a similar fate will befall the vuvuzelas.”

Yet it was a shift in the entire base of fan culture, rather than a simple realisation that rattles were annoying, that removed the rattle from the terraces.

The Thunderstick

The thunderstick emerged in the 1990s in Korea, and quickly spread to North America at baseball, football and political rallies. The air chambers inside the inflated plastic baton amplifies the sound of the sticks clapped together, meaning even a child can create quite a racket. The advantage of thundersticks from a commercial standpoint is that, unlike rattles, they are large enough to feature a prominent company logo and can be produced cheap enough to mass distribute for free before games.

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The marketing spiel of one company selling them explains their simple use and appeal:

Sports fans around the world love these best-selling noisemakers. When inflated, fans hit them together for loud cheering fun while yielding a low cost, large marketing impression. Thunder Stick are the ideal promotional product for giveaways at basketball, hockey, soccer, football, and lacrosse games. Candidates love to use them to produce crowd energy at political rallies. Packaged in pairs for easy distribution and cleanliness, Thunder Stick are made from 100% recycled PE.

Many Major League Soccer teams embraced the thunderstick, and games were often played to the uncoordinated din of young children manufacturing a plastic roar.

Thundersticks have remained popular at Korean football and baseball games. You will remember them from the 2002 World Cup, when seemingly every Korean fan was armed with a pair of inflatable red batons: one American fan, watching from home, remembers the joy of the silencing of the sticks when the U.S. scored (“In this moment of grace, Clint Mathis stilled the red thundersticks of South Korea.”)

So cheap to produce and so useful a marketing tool, the thunderstick seems unlikely to vanish any time soon, though constant complaints have begun to limit their presence in American baseball stadiums.

The Vuvuzela

And so we come to the vuvuzela. Originally made out of tin, they were mass produced in plastic in the last decade and have reached a new fame with the worldwide debate on their use prompted by the hum at every Confederations Cup game in South Africa. Many mistake the vuvuzela for the air horns used commonly around the world, but they have a different origin and use as an instrument in South Africa.

As we know, many players, coaches and fans have complained about the noise of the vuvuzela at the Confederations Cup, with calls for their ban inundating FIFA. This prompted a defense of the vuvuzela as organic African culture from Sepp Blatter, echoed by BBC writer Farayi Mungazi:

“That is what African and South Africa football is all about – noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment,” said the most powerful man in world football.

I could not have put it better myself. Banning the vuvuzela would take away the distinctiveness of a South African World Cup.

It is a recognised sound of football in South Africa and is absolutely essential for an authentic South African footballing experience.

After all, what would be the point of taking the World Cup to Africa, and then trying to give it a European feel?

Let us all embrace the vuvuzela and whatever else a South African World Cup throws at us.

The fact that some in Europe find it irritating is no reason to get rid of it.

Though a fairly recent instrument at South African football games, some trace the roots to African tradition. “The ancestor of the vuvuzela is said to be the kudu horn – ixilongo in isiXhosa, mhalamhala in Tshivenda – blown to summon African villagers to meetings.”

It seems to have been in 1992 that the vuvuzela was first used at South African football matches, by supporters of AmaZulu F.C.. Supporters made the horns out of discarded tin cans, and the use spread wildly, to the joy of many and the irritation of some: South African writer Jon Qwelane wrote in 2007 that “Nowadays, there is an instrument from hell, called the vuvuzela, which has largely formed my decision to abandon all live games and rather watch on TV, with the sound totally muted.”

Children playing vuvuzelas

In the 2000s, with South Africa’s World Cup bid on the horizon, the vuvuzela became a mass produced commercialised phenomenon as the result of a grant given by SAB Miller (the giant South African brewer) to Neil van Schalkwyk’s company Masincedane Sport in 2001, who began to mass produce a cheap plastic version.

By 2005, the commercial potential of the horn was clear. Van Schalkwyk told the South African press that “It is our dream that the ‘Vuvuzela’ become the icon of the Soccer World Cup 2010 and that each supporter is given one of our horns. When England played South Africa in May 2003, some international supporters were buying over five horns each.”

South African vuvuzela enthusiast Mzion Mofokeng explains the significance of the instrument. “When we started the vuvuzela, there was so much sadness in our country in those years and it brought so much joy. All of a sudden people would go to the stadiums because of this instrument that was able to get fans on their feet and start cheering. For a few hours, they would forget about the reality in our society and enjoy the sound.

In 2008, FIFA ruled that vuvuzela’s would be allowed in stadiums for the 2010 World Cup. The debate before the ruling focused not on concerns about the noise, but FIFA’s concern that the vuvuzela’s would be used by companies to have an advertising presence at the game or as a weapon.

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The argument for banning the vuvuzela is obvious to anyone who has watched a Confederations Cup game: it certainly produces quite a racket, one that appears to be an uncoordinated din of a million bees, following in the footsteps of the rattle and the thunderstick and the regular air horn.

Yet unlike the thunderstick or the rattle, the vuvuzela is an instrument that when co-ordinated, actually has a purpose in leading sections of the stadium in sound and song which has not come across on television. Jay Hipps at Center Line Soccer explains:

We’ve all heard plastic horns in stadiums in the U.S. and Mexico, but there’s a lot more creativity involved in South Africa. Specifically,  the horns are played in a call-and-response pattern that involves a leader who plays a complex rhythm and a group of players who punctuate that pattern on a specific beat. [..]

The most active supporters choreograph their movements. The side men lower their horns while the leader plays and suddenly point them skyward as they hit their note. It’s reminiscent of something jazz or even marching band horn sections have done for decades.

Unfortunately, the broadcasters have set up their stadium microphones the same way they would anywhere else in the world, so the result is a constant hum where the charm of the vuvuzela is lost to the TV audience.  The first thing on their to do lists should be re-working the microphone layout so they can capture an individual group of supporters in all its glory, rather than the simultaneous mish-mash of everyone playing at once that they currently offer. Even suggesting a ban before that is attempted is a radical over-reaction.

The best illustration of what Hipps means is the vuvuzela orchestra. As their website explains:

The Vuvuzela Orchestra and the traditional South African ensembles (Dinaka, Tshikona) that inspired its creation are musical representations of the “Ubuntu” principles.

The Nguni proverb “Ubuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu” means that a person becomes human with the help of other humans. An individual can only survive through cooperation with other humans.

What better expression of that principle can there be than a musical ensemble where each player only has one note to play ? This is an absolutely exhilarating experience which was created by human societies many thousands of years ago at the very beginning of humanity to make their communities stronger.

This video of the orchestra’s practise and then performance at a football match illustrates Hipps’ point that the vuvuzela is an instrument with a purpose, not a simple noisemaker (be sure to watch to the end to see how the single note can be used effectively):

Vuvuzela Orchestra @ Mandela Challenge 2007 from Pedro Espi-Sanchis on Vimeo.

To be sure, not all who use the vuvuzela do so with the right art and coordination.  But the failure of television to convey the vuvuzela’s differentiation as a noisemaker from the likes of the rattle and the thunderstick and the calls to ban it have struck a nerve in South Africans, who interpret it as an attack on a part of their culture. FIFA allowed the thunderstick — an entirely indefensible noisemaker — to litter the 2002 World Cup. Why instead ban a noisemaker that has been proven to have an instrumental purpose and meaning to South Africans?

Do we really want FIFA to further sanitise and regulate fan culture at the World Cup by banning the vuvuzela, just so we’re all comfortable in our armchairs with surround sound on?


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