Tuesday, June 15, 2010


The World Cup’s barely underway, for the first time on the African continent and, despite some stellar play (Ghana’s big win over Serbia), stunning lapses (the goal that trickled into the England yielding that sweet 1-1 tie with the U.S. team) and an unlikely bounce (the one that went off a Danish player into his own net), much of the talk of the event has been about the sound of the people in the stands.

The first World Cup in Africa has thrust front and center some of the continent’s cherished traditions and folkways into the global spotlight; the noisiest of them have been the vuvuzelas, the long plastic horns whose raucous bleating has been the black, brown and white noise heard at every match. Soccer fans throughout South Africa have been making their own joyful noises with the horns, which come in all sizes and shapes (some on the South African streets even look like shofars).

Besides giving the Western broadcasters fits (detracts from their dreary, one-dimensional commentaries, you know) and pissing off other media (The Sydney Morning Herald called it “The Noise That Annoys”), the rise of the vuvuzela has exposed the differences of celebration style, the cultural distinctions between African and European cultures like nothing else could.

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Some have called for a ban on the stadium horns, whose sound has been described with a variety of gruesome images (Mondli Makhanya of the Times of Johannesburg compares it to “a sound akin to a goat on the way to slaughter”). It’s not just annoying, either; a study by a hearing-aid maker, released June 7 and reported by AFP, determined that the volume of a vuvuzela in full cry can reach 127 decibels, about as bad as commercial aircraft on approach.

But others have rallied to the horn’s defense. The Times, in an editorial, made its feelings clear: “The vuvuzela is ours, made here on South African soil. Yes, it is noisy and, yes, it is a cheap plastic tube.

“But that is exactly what the vuvuzela is all about in the context of South African soccer. It is part of an ordinary soccer fan's experience as he makes his way to a stadium to watch his local team. It is part of the paraphernalia that makes us who we are when we shout in triumph when Orlando Pirates score, or groan with misery when Chiefs miss a goal.

“We've pretty much done all we can to make this World Cup the best we can. We've built grand edifices to soccer around the country, we've marshalled our police to protect those who are visiting us.

“For goodness sake, leave our humble vuvuzela alone.”

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At least one prominent Johannesburg talk-radio host puts it in another context, considering the country’s painful history of prohibitions borne of the corrosions of the long-dead apartheid system. “Banning it? Nah,” said Robert Marawa, to NBC News. “I mean, South Africans have gone through enough bannings in the past. I think we are beyond banning anything.”

There's been some low-grade talk about a crackdown, and complaints of some players, but so far it’s come to nothing. Which is probably the right move. When a major sport rotates to a host country in a contest on the world stage, it’s understood that that iteration of the contest will bear the native flavors of that host nation. South Africa should be no exception.

In the United States, it’s all different. At baseball games, we can count on taking the seventh-inning stretch. We’re constantly regaled at NFL games by the blare of classic rock songs. Welcome to the jungle. Start me up. We are the champions. We will rock you. It’s all been done before and before.

The vuvuzela is the new ritual in town, new only because we’re not used to how South Africans throw down. For the next week, that’s too bad. Of all the sounds the vuvuzela’s capable of, it’s also been able to communicate another message from South Africa to the world: Break out the cotton and ear plugs, and suck it up. Lighten up, world. This is how we do it over here. Deal with it.
Image credits: Vuvuzela top: Ina Fassbinder, Reuters. Vuvuzela middle: flowcomm, republished under Creative Commons ShareAlike License. Vuvuzela bottom: AFP.

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