Vuvuzela: South African football’s beautiful noise
What’s plastic, a metre long, brightly coloured and sounds like an elephant? It’s the vuvuzela, the noise-making trumpet of South African football fans, and it’s come to symbolise the sport in the country.
It’s an instrument, but not always a musical one. Describing the atmosphere in a stadium packed with thousands of fans blowing their vuvuzelas is difficult. Up close it’s an elephant, sure, but en masse the sound is more like a massive swarm of very angry bees.
And when there’s action near the goal mouth, those bees go really crazy.
To get that sound out requires lip flexibility and lung strength – in short, a fair amount of technique. So be sure to get in some practice before attending a South African football match, or you the sound you produce may cause some amusement in the seats around you!
Vuvuzela supplier Boogieblast offers this advice: “Put your lips inside the mouthpiece and almost make a ‘farting’ sound. Relax your cheeks and let your lips vibrate inside the mouthpiece. As soon as you get that trumpeting sound, blow harder until you re
ach a ridiculously loud ‘boogying blast’.
- What should it sound like? Try this .wav file from www.boogieblast.co.za
Descendant of the kudu horn?
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. Later versions were made of tin.
- Boogieblast offers a somewhat different story.
The trumpet became so popular at football matches in the late 1990s that a company, Masincedane Sport, was formed in 2001 to mass-produce it. Made of plastic, they come in a variety of colours – black or white for fans of Orlando Pirates, yellow for Kaizer Chiefs, and so on – with little drawings on the side warning against blowing in the ear!
There’s uncertainty on the origin of the word “vuvuzela”. Some say it comes from the isiZulu for – wait for it – “making noise”. Others say it’s from township slang related to the word “shower”, because it “showers people with music” – or, more prosaically, looks a little like a shower head.
The announcement, on 15 May 2004, that South Africa would host the 2010 Fifa World Cup gave the vuvuzela a huge boost, to say the least – some 20 000 were sold on the day by enterprising street vendors.
It’s a noisy thing, so there’s no surprise some don’t like it. Journalist Jon Qwelane once quipped that he had taken to watching football matches at home – with the volume turned low – because of what he described as “an instrument of hell”.
Viva the vuvuzela orchestra!
Cape Town-based music educator Pedro Espi-Sanchis has a different view, however: to him the vuvuzela is a rousing instrument that can, when tuned correctly, play in an orchestra as easily as a flute, violin or cello.
Espi-Sanchis says the vuvuzela is a “proudly South African instrument” with roots deep in local traditional music. He was introduced to it over 30 years ago by renowned South African ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey.
A fan of football himself, Espi-Sanchis came up with the idea of a vuvuzela orchestra after realising that crowds at a match could coordinate their trumpeting to make music. “I heard the vuvuzelas at soccer games and the sound was not musical at all,” he says. “Vuvuzelas need to play rhythms together to really show their power.”
In 2006 Espi-Sanchis and Thandi Swartbooi, head of the South African traditional music group Woman Unite, launched a vuvuzela orchestra as part of the Cape Town-based uMoya Music organisation.
Made up of a core group of seven people, with Espi-Sanchis as conductor and soloist on the lekgodilo flute and six musicians each playing a vuvuzela, the orchestra made its first public appearance at the Johannesburg Carnival in December 2006.
Their first performance at a soccer match was at the Nelson Mandela Challenge match at Ellis Park stadium in November 2007, when Bafana Bafana took on the USA.
Espi-Sanchis found an excellent local football fan base to accompany the vuvuzela orchestra. Supporters of Bloemfontein Celtic football club, based in the Free State, “form one of the best fan bases in South African soccer,” he says. “In November , we taught 60 of these fans to play seven songs in just five days.
“Each of our six musicians was responsible for 10 fans, and they taught them to play their parts. Celtic fans also taught us some of their wonderful songs, and together we supported Bafana Bafana at the Mandela Challenge by singing and dancing with the vuvuzela orchestra.”
“Now we want to bring up a fan base to support our national team,” says Espi-Sanchis. “The vuvuzela music can be learnt very quickly … we want to use the Celtic supporters as models for a national fan base.”
Whether or not Espi-Sanchis’ ambitions are realised, vuvezalas are bound to play an integral part in South Africa’s 2010 celebrations, and World Cup visitors are sure to go home with a vuvuzela or two tucked in their luggage – and a little ringing in their ears …