The vuvuzela: Did we blow it by blowing it?

The metre-long plastic instrument was the signature sound of the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa. What the hell were we thinking?

I come to bury the vuvuzela, not praise it. The trumpet of South African cultural exceptionalism has died a plaintive death in the decade since it irritated billions of Fifa World Cup viewers. And now, in the age of Covid-19-infused fomites, the vuvuzela’s only legally and morally defensible purpose is to measure out a 2m gap.

The vuvuzela was billed as a celebration of South African attitude and spirit, providing the jubilant soundtrack of “Philip is here”. But in reality it was what is known in Yiddish as a meshuga – a weird, stubborn madness. Because let’s be honest here, nobody in their right minds actually likes the din of a vuvuzela in one’s ear – except the vuvuzealot who happens to be blowing one.

In the moment of emitting the stentorian wail of a helicopter-sized mosquito, you feel weirdly good. When you experience it passively, you feel mildly kak.

In the pre-2010 World Cup decade, the vuvu rose to prominence in South Africa, partly because local diski fans took decisive action to be on the right end of the vuvuzela. We all grabbed our own horn and blew the bejeezus out of it, in a desperate bid not to be a victim. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em, the reasoning went.

The vuvuzela-industrial complex

All that atonal flatulence got the nostrils of capital twitching and before you could blink, a shadowy vuvuzela-industrial complex had materialised. One Neil van Schalkwyk, co-owner of Masincedane Sport, got in on the act early and trademarked the name of the horn. He had been flogging them since 1999. He couldn’t believe his luck, the vuvudemic escalated rapidly once Sepp Blatter had pulled South Africa’s name from his subtly greased envelope in Zurich.

A small army of ad execs, creative directors and marketing strategists swiftly anointed the instrument as the delightful emblem of South Africa 2010, much to the delight of Asian sweatshop operators who happily flogged us enough horns to blow Satan out of hell. Informal traders got in on the act with a vengeance.

Sponsors mopped up their unspent budgets by ordering complimentary bugles to pair with branded USB sticks and makarapas, or fan-painted hard hats. The vuvuzela even seemed to be breeding in the wild. In a macabre twist, around 2007 it spawned the babazela, a small klaxon-like torture instrument that emitted the cry of a baby in distress.

The tube of discord

Into this gathering aural nightmare stumbled an unsuspecting world on 11 June 2010. In a television broadcast, a massed vuvuzela orchestra loses the anarchic frisson – discordant but admittedly quite exciting – that it generates inside a stadium. All that remains on the television audio feed is a monotonous cacophony of petulance.

It’s like a million sugar-crashing toddlers are at your door, demanding an ice-cream from you simultaneously. The action-tracking emotional dynamics of crowd noise – the surges of excitement, the lulls of expectation, the cathartic exhalations of frustration – were razed by what seemed to be an experimental composer’s variation on the theme of boredom.

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For many of the Brazilian fans who crossed the Atlantic for the mundial, the vuvu’s extended reign of terror was especially puzzling. A virtually identical bugle had briefly been a fad in Brazilian stadiums during the 1990s, but then quickly and mercifully faded from popularity. Why, they wondered, had we South Africans – a people just as gifted as Brazilians in the arts of melodic singing and polyrhythmic percussion – embraced this inane tube of discord so passionately?

Well, we weren’t terribly sure – but we were very sure that we were not going to allow those uptight killjoys of the imperialist Global North undermine our indigenous cultural practices. The vuvu, we told all and sundry, was descended from the traditional Zulu kudu horn, even though it looked and sounded totally different to its mystical ancestor.

Fighting for ownership

There were other claimants to the copyright. Legendary superfan Saddam Maake presented photographic evidence of himself wielding an archaic, tin vuvu in the late 1970s. The priesthood of the Shembe church documented an even earlier precedent, noting that their forefathers had been tooting on a sacred proto-vuvuzela way back in the early decades of the 20th century.

The problem, of course, is that the design of the vuvu is an ancient and transcultural one, offering the most efficient technology for alerting distant listeners loudly and clearly to the presence of an invading army, or dinner, or a Siphiwe Tshabalala wonder goal. The vuvuzela has inbred cousins all over the world. We unilaterally decided it was our own invention, and then we decided that because the world thought it was kak, we thought it was great. As its slow demise in the intervening years suggests, it was kind of kak all along.

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With hindsight, it would have been really nice if we had just decided to sing instead, thus giving the world something like the sonic soulfuck you famously used to get from a packed Bloemfontein Celtic crowd at 2-0 up. That intense choral gift is not confined to the disciples of Phunya Sele Sele. Nobody on this goodly Earth sings quite like a bunch of South Africans who are feeling grand.

Ag well, maybe next time. We put on a fabulous World Cup nonetheless – and at least the tournament ball, Jabulani, flew straight and true.

What? Oh.

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