World Cup 2010: Vuvuzelas, the horns of Africa

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Love those long plastic trumpets or loathe them, vuvuzelas have become the symbol of South Africa’s World Cup.

To some, their unmistakable drone is the world’s most irritating sound, a headache-inducing menace that is ruining the 2010 soccer championships and deserving of a swift and strictly enforced ban.

Others hear it as joyful self-expression, a South African tradition that has made this World Cup unique, the ultimate souvenir for overseas fans — and fun to blow.

Vuvuzelas have been a polarizing and controversial issue in the opening round of the World Cup, and are dogged by rumors that FIFA will ban them from stadiums due to noise levels that can damage hearing and cause havoc for broadcasters. Another common gripe is that vuvuzelas have changed the atmosphere at matches by overtaking the traditional songs usually heard sung by fans.

A French cable channel began offering a vuvuzela-free broadcast of all matches, using frequency-blocking technology to eliminate the buzz of the trumpets. Meanwhile, several audio software vendors have started selling downloadable “vuvuzela filters” that they claim will block the noise.

Even a giant 120-foot long vuvuzela atop an unfinished flyover in Cape Town has been silenced — city officials feared that its booming noise could cause traffic chaos below.

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Television viewers of the World Cup seem to be the most rabidly anti-vuvuzela. More than 300,000 people have joined a Facebook petition asking for FIFA to ban the “annoying vuvuzela,” many of them posting furious attacks on the horn and the people who blow them.

“If I wanted to stick my head inside a beehive, I would do so. Stop the noise and let the players play!” wrote Kevin McVan, in one of the few profanity-free comments. “[South Africans] just don’t seem to care that the rest of the world is getting fed up and having their World Cup enjoyment affected!” wrote Nicola Warner.

Local World Cup organizing chief Danny Jordaan — who has said he would personally prefer to hear singing to vuvuzelas — said that FIFA might consider a ban of the trumpets “if there are grounds to do so,” specifically, “if any land on the pitch in anger.” This remark has sparked calls on the Facebook petition for spectators to throw vuvuzelas onto the field, in an attempt to get them banned.

But FIFA President Sepp Blatter, long a vuvuzela supporter, has stood fast behind the trumpets.

“I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound,” he posted on Twitter. “I don’t see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country. Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?”

Players have been divided on the issue. France captain Patrice Evra blamed the vuvuzelas for his team’s poor performance after its first match. Argentina’s Lionel Messi complained that “it is impossible to communicate … It is like being deaf.”

But England defender Jamie Carragher said that the buzzing sound is most noticeable when watching games on TV, and he doesn’t think it is a problem on the pitch, joking that he is louder than the vuvuzelas. Carragher has said he will be bringing a few of the horns back to his children in England.

At World Cup matches, the majority of spectators seem to have no problem with the vuvuzela, including the many foreign fans who have joined South Africans in blowing the horns. The sound of vuvuzelas at stadiums is less of the monotone buzz heard on TV broadcasts and more distinct, with slightly separate tones. For tourists, the vuvuzela has become the ultimate souvenir of the tournament.

“I love the vuvuzela!” exclaimed Zaahir Chotta, 40, from Buenos Aires, before letting loose with a long blow on his plastic trumpet: “Hoooommmmmm!”

Chotta, who traveled to South Africa with a group of friends to follow Argentina's team at the tournament, says he will be transporting this South African soccer tradition to future matches in South America. “I’m bringing them to Brazil for the next World Cup,” he said.

“They’re amazing,” said Carlton Carter, 37, from New York. No, the noise doesn’t bother him, he said, and earplugs aren’t necessary. “It’s part of the celebration,” Carter said. “I’ll be bringing some back with me.”

The vuvuzelas have also been imported to baseball. The Florida Marlins handed out free vuvuzela-like horns to 15,000 fans for a game against the Tampa Bay Rays last week. “That was the worst handout or giveaway I’ve ever been a part of in baseball,” Dan Uggla, the Marlins second baseman, said afterward.

In China, where most vuvuzelas are manufactured, sales of the horns have been roaring, as they have been in the U.K. at a major supermarket chain. Downloads of vuvuzela applications have also been popular among the iPhone set, with nearly a dozen applications available online to simulate the sound of the horn — and annoy friends.

Experts have warned that the noise from a vuvuzela can cause permanent hearing damage, and that spectators should wear earplugs to protect themselves. But at stadiums, the noise isn’t as loud as you might expect — unless you are sitting directly in front of someone who is sounding a vuvuzela near your head, in which case it can be literally mind blowing.

While many South Africans have taken to blowing the vuvuzela with gusto, the horns are by no means universally loved in the country.

Before their association with soccer, vuvuzelas were part of the Nazareth Baptist Church, also known as Shembe, which for decades has used a holy horn as part of its religious ceremonies. The Shembe horn become associated with soccer starting in the 1990s, after a fan of top South African soccer club the Kaizer Chiefs was said to have visited the church and later made a plastic model of their metal trumpet, so that he could bring it into stadiums.

Church members had considered taking legal action to stop the vuvuzelas from being played during the World Cup. An agreement was recently reached between Masincedane Sport, the South African manufacturer that owns the trademark to the vuvuzela, and the church. The company has agreed to contribute to a fund to help vulnerable church members.

Another ancestor of the vuvuzela is said to be the kudu horn, a traditional instrument blown to call villagers together for meetings.

At a South Africa friendly match a few weeks ago, one foreign visitor who asked a group of young men behind her to quiet down with their vuvuzelas was swiftly reprimanded by other South Africans.

“You can’t ask them to do that,” one Afrikaans man interrupted. “It’s part of their culture.”

“Vuvuzelas are here to stay and will never be banned,” Rich Mkhondo, a spokesman for the World Cup local organizing committee, told reporters at Soccer City in Johannesburg. “As our guests please embrace our culture, please embrace the way we celebrate.”