Vuvu culture

2010-07-10 11:48

The drama, the spectacle, the emotion, the persistent low-grade

background hum: even before the first weekend of the month-long World Cup

tournament was over, it was clear that at this gathering of some of the planet’s

finest athletes the first breakout star wasn’t a Ronaldo or a Messi; it was the

uncountable number of ­vuvuzelas.

“The plastic horns have become a major subplot of the World Cup,”

ESPN.com declared, and who could disagree?

At an event notable for national

grudges with intricate histories playing out before an expected record worldwide

audience, this simple, slightly silly, mass-produced noisemaker/­instrument

became a highly unlikely symbol of cultural meaning.

To be clear about the thing itself: a vuvuzela is two to three feet

long and comes to life by way of a trumpeter’s raspberry blow, emitting a

115-decibel-plus blare in B flat.

World Cup players (including Lionel Messi of

Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal) griped that the noise on the field

was deafening, and TV viewers complained about a sound like a swarm of

insects.

But rumours of a ban were quickly silenced.

“Vuvuzelas are a cultural phenomenon for our country and for our

football,” one South African World Cup organiser said.

Sepp Blatter, the Swiss president of Fifa, offered a Twitter

soundbyte: “I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different

sound.”

With that note of the Exotic Other struck, we could turn to the

question of the vuvuzela’s future. What happens when the World Cup concludes

tonight and a tchotchke diaspora takes shape?

After all, it’s “a must-have item” for visiting fans, The National

Post of Canada reported, noting that one South African maker of the horns sold

about a million of them for $2.50 (about R19) each before matches had even

started. “I love it,” said one German fan quoted by The Sydney Morning Herald.

I can see it catching on at games in Europe.”

In the US they have already been given out at a Florida Marlins

game promotion.

The vuvuzela sound has proliferated in a range of ring tones and

smartphone applications.

The meaning(s) of the souvenir that tourists carry home will

ultimately be shaped by the nature of the surprisingly heated disagreement. The

initial vuvuzela attack had an empirical, rational cast.

New Scientist published an acoustic engineer’s explanation of the

horn’s annoyingness, citing on its website findings from “investigations into

many noise-annoyance problems”.

Fears of hearing damage were amplified by a reported massive spike

in earplug sales.

The horns were labelled a potential health threat, possibly

spreading airborne illnesses via tiny specks of spittle.

“The world’s first

real-time vuvuzela-filtering plug-in” was offered to those watching games on a

Mac, and CreateDigitalMusic.com offered tips on other digital strategies for

cancelling out the noise.

Even Consumer Reports weighed in, siding with the

“vuvuzela as annoying racket” crowd, and advised readers on how to adjust their

TV audio.

But vuvuzela supporters’ backlash took a cultural tack. Making

noise is part of sports fandom. Consider the plastic Thunder Stix banged

together by fans of the Anaheim Angels.

Consider game-ending fireworks. Consider the singing and chanting

of many ­nations’ soccer fans.

“Who are they to question our culture?” Freddie Maake demanded of

critics.

And this is where it gets interesting. While Maake has been

credited as the vuvuzela’s “inventor” for having modified a bicycle horn three

decades ago, other press accounts described vuvuzelas as modern descendants of

traditional kudu horns made by Zulu tribes; and a South African church insists

that the original vuvuzelas were used in its worship services early in the 20th

century.

But the actual, widespread use of the plastic horns among South

African soccer fans appears to date back only to the late 1990s; most

contemporary vuvuzelas are reported to be made in China.

Mark Beukes, a South African who now lives in New York, has many

fond memories of unique aspects of his home country’s soccer fandom in the early

1990s – notably the customised miner helmets known as “makarapas”.

But he had never blown a vuvuzela until his brother gave him one on

a visit home last Christmas, and he has mixed feelings about the way actual

tradition is being overshadowed by “this commodity that is mass-produced”, he

says.

“We have our own chants and style of singing, but no one is going

to see that.”

Several sports fans I heard from (by way of my friend, Paul Lukas,

of Uniwatchblog.com) offered many examples of plastic horn-blowing at a range of

events in the US and elsewhere, going back at least a decade.

But

whatever.

While South Africa failed to make it out of the first round, its

World Cup established that these things signify a nation’s?soccer fandom and

that they are called vuvuzelas, everywhere, from now on — period.

It’s precisely thanks to the vuvuzela haters, really, that

“everyone’s galvanised”, Beukes observes. And that is what made a plastic

whatsit into a cultural object.

“It’s a commodity,” he concludes philosophically, “but it’s a South

African commodity.”



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