And you will know us by the sound of vuvuzelas


Despite some stunning matchups, the news story of the 2010 World Cup has undoubtedly been the vuvuzela. While there have been valiant efforts to the contrary (see Jennifer Doyle’s article in The Guardian about homophobia and sexual violence), not a newscycle goes by without some reference to this small plastic horn.

Designed in South Africa in the 1960s as a more portable facisimile of traditional kudu horns —and now mass-produced by the thousands in Chinese factories—the vuvuzela’s drone has been broadcast across the globe to the thrill of some and the annoyance of others. Non-African players have complained of headaches and difficulty playing because of the constant, loud sound; the BBC has created a special filter to block out some of the horn’s buzzing tones for at-home viewers. An oddly virulent backlash against the rising popularity of the horn outside of South Africa has effected bans against the vuvuzela at events as distant from South Africa and FIFA as one can get: the U.S. based Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Scottish T music festival, and, most recently, Nathan’s Coney Island Eating Competition, lest the horn “damage the competitive eating aesthetic.” The language used by many of these bans is that of contagion, like the sound of the vuvuzela is the herald of an infectious disease or a plague of locusts.

There have been many critiques of the horn at the level of decibels and hearing damage—the vuvuzela is reportedly 127 decibels, louder than a rock concert—although by that same logic the entire sport of NASCAR should be banned outright, as the New York Times reports it at a whopping 140 decibels. The pointed Nathan’s ban targeting “aesthetics” cuts to the quick of this heated debate. As an African instrument with its own particular history and cultural protocols, the vuvuzela seems to bother some people—namely members of Western and European nations—much more intensely than others, and for different reasons. Two of my husband’s coworkers, from the Ivory Coast and Grenada respectively, described the vuvuzela as a symbolic African diasporic sound of celebration that makes many white people uncomfortable; banning it outright would be not only an obvious pander to Western sensibilities—especially a preference for song over more random outbursts of sound—but also offensive, especially as South Africa is hosting the event. Or as the Botswana Voice Newsblog broke it down: “Hands Off the Vuvuzela!”

Dissenting voices have described the horn as annoyingly loud at best and disturbingly disruptive at worst. John Leicester, sports columnist for the Associated Press, managed to describe the sound of the horn as both “mindless” and “brainless” in his blog “Vuvuzela drone killing World Cup atmosphere,” as opposed to what he calls “football’s aural artistry”: the “ooohs,” “ahhhs,” and stadium chants of the “inventive” English who are “usually among the best-drilled noisemakers in football” but have been tragically drowned out by the “brainless” horns. After cultural comparisons like this—along the lines of the old racialized mind/body split concocted during the Enlightenment—it is difficult not to read Leicester’s closing plea, “Please, South Africa, make them stop. Give us a song, instead,” as a latent desire to control African people, not just their sonic output. At the very least, it is a tacit acknowledgement that the world is still divided along the lines of “us” and “them” and that sound plays a much larger role in facilitating these uneven power dynamics than previously thought.

It has also shown the world that struggles over the shifting border between sound and noise are rarely just that. It is precisely in such battles where sound studies can make an important intervention. . .so drop us a comment on the vuvuzela and the intense reactions it has elicited. What do you think? Has the vuvuzela been racialized? Is it a case of noise just being noise? Or is this phenomenon something else altogether? At the very least, blow one for yourself here and get a taste of what all the fuss is about.


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6 responses to “And you will know us by the sound of vuvuzelas”

  1. Aaron Trammell says :

    This just in! Harvard alums threatened by the vulvuzela! The definitive symbol of sonic otherness.


  2. Harold Schellinx says :

    Lots been written and said on the Vuvuzela and the pervading b-flat drone that accompanied the world cup’s matches. I will not go into all possible, objective and subjective, arguments again here, but I loved it. It was as only towards the end of the tournament that I finally found a way to *listen* to the matches without the continuous television commentaries masking the stadium soundscape. Therefore, as an hommage to the Vuvuzela,I made _Finale_: it’s the full 2+ hours soundtrack of the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup final between the Netherlands and Spain, slightly (but ever so subtly) edited [re-composed], for an optimal listening experience …


  3. Zdietl says :

    I’ve encountered another reaction to the vuvuzela; one of semi-ironic adoption. While there are a large number negative vuvuzela jokes and criticisms, I’ve seen a number that seem to imply “what will be will be, so we might as well put it to use.” Two examples: a small soccer ball icon that has popper up on youtube which, when clicked, plays the drone over whatever video you are watching, and a vuvuzela app on my Droid smartphone. Each of these technologies are special in that the user engages them, and makes it their own. (I should also point out that the sound produced is designed to replicate the T.V. sound, and not the live sound proposed by angbandking.)

    Once I myself pushed the button, what at first seemed unusual or annoying to me started to become part of the landscape. Once normalized, I think I felt a sense of comraderie with the drone. I got the joke! The sound is totally recontextualized, and quite enjoyable. And besides, is it really all that different from the manic vocal crowd drone at a stadium concert or sporting event?


  4. angbandking says :

    My cat Terra lasted 25 seconds before abandoning me to the tones of the virtual vuvuzela!

    Seriously, I wonder how much liveness has to do with the critique of these tones. Speakers (and microphones) tend to compress, and reformat sounds which travel through them, some more than others. For this reason, a consumer speaker setup will tend to dither down the sonic contours of a phenomenon into an order which favors the loud. This means basically that through most television broadcasts, live sounds are necessarily removed from their natural contexts.

    I agree, the vuvuzela has been racialized, and want to push this idea further by positing that the medium through which world cup soccer is disseminated encourages this kind of audio segregation due to its formal aspects. We hear what the producers of the broadcast decide to broadcast, as well as the way our televisions (or radios) automatically re-interpolate and regurgitate these sounds. In the context of western sports broadcasts, the vuvuzela is radically different, and therefore apparent due to it’s unique sonic fingerprint. It’s sound is automatically othered from the hegemonic noise of western sports broadcasts where chants and cheers serve to reinforce the norms of western sports culture.


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