Everything you wanted to know about vuvuzelas (but were afraid to ask)

Posted on June 12, 2010

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It’s the ambient noise of a swarm of bees. Needless to say, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like the stinging insects, then you might want to turn down the volume on your television and do without Messrs Wilson, Lawrenson, Champion and Townsend. It might even help – by their own admission on the first day of play at the 2010 South African World Cup, none of the British pundits seemed to have got any sleep before dawn broke on the day of the competition. They were kept awake by the vuvuzelas.

Vuvuzela is about to become one of those words which leaps into prominence (and probably sticks in the back of your mind for years to come). Depending on your etmyological stance, the word for the long, thin horn which looks something like a cross between an didgeridoo and a clarinet comes from a word for “shower” – for showering music across the stands of the World Cup stadia – or for “making noise” (something which those watching the tournament can attest to).

Regardless, like much in South Africa, the horns are bright, colourful and cheap to make; brittle plastic, they have been looked at carefully in case they can be used not only as an aural weapon against the opposing team but as a physical bludgeoning tool against other supporters if things get messy in the stands. But that isn’t their real use. Rather, they are meant to be a sign of joy, a way to signify that the World Cup has reached Africa for the first time, and the World Cup is going to be a party. They are everywhere: inside the stadia, on the streets of South Africa and in the mouths of wide-eyed local fans standing outside hotels, inadvertently keeping awake English ex-footballers in crisp dress shirts more used to the thrum of traffic outside their windows than a plague of locusts. Indeed, the BBC’s Steve Wilson eschewed the traditional bug imagery to describe their noise and rested on the traffic jam image in his commentary for Uruguay vs. France yesterday.

On a pragmatic note, the din of the vuvuzela resounding around stadia on matchdays can do more than just annoy the viewing audience at home and bring flashbacks to the studio pundits: they can affect team management too. Bert van Marwijk, the Netherlands national team coach (a country with strong historical and cultural links to South Africa) has railed against the instruments, saying that he thinks it will be hard to pass on messages to his players during crucial matches.

What they do, whether you find them annoying or not – and the consensus is that almost everyone at the minute finds them annoying – is provide a sense of atmosphere which is solely South African. In a world of identikit steel-girdered stadia and a consumerist competition which hops from continent to continent every four years, the vuvuzela makes sure you know that the World Cup you’re watching at home is beaming right from the streets of South Africa.

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