Further Thoughts on a Remarkable New Irritant

Slate's Culture Blog
June 24 2010 10:13 AM

Further Thoughts on a Remarkable New Irritant

There continues to be a lot of noise going around about the  vuvuzela —the stadium horn with a drone likened, most aptly, to the demonic buzz that gathers at key points in  The Shining . At this moment, the din of complaints induces headaches all on its own. However, as far as I can tell, the discussion has neglected two important questions about this remarkable new irritant. The first straightforwardly regards a matter of sensory experience. The second, knottier, involves a matter of national identity.

1)      How does the annoyance that the instruments provoke live and in person (as played singly or in small groups) compare to the impotent fury they provoke when whirring through your TV speakers by the thousands?

2)      What does the instrument have to tell us about the nature of the South African people?

Let me elaborate on that second question; it concerns a potentially touchy subject, and I do not wish to offend anyone by accident, only on purpose.

It is an extremely minor consequence of the legacies of colonialism and apartheid that foreigners have been slow to appreciate the South African national character as a whole. Fortunately, this World Cup gives us an opportunity to reassess our preconceptions of the host country and understand the cultural values all her citizens share. Point is, it’s high time that we in the international community develop appropriate derogatory stereotypes of the South African people  as a whole , black and white, Boer and Bantu. In the noise of the vuvuzela we may well hear the expression of a few special traits.

In the spirit of pursuing this matter, I have been squeezing through the doorway of a South African restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., eyeing the soccer matches over mediocre  Kenyan lager —and, during the country’s humiliation at the feet of Uruguay, over the heads of an ethnically diverse crowd of agitated drunks. A thin majority of them were pleasant enough, and surely even fewer actually hailed from South Africa. I spent the second half of the match next to a jackass whose deepest connection to the country seemed to be the  Lonely Planet  guide with which he was hogging a barstool. Still, the environment encouraged a certain tone—tense but sloppy, fearlessly boorish. Somebody stole my order of  slap chips .

Overall, the experience abraded the nerves in much the same way that vuvuzela itself does, up close and personal. I arrived for the Uruguay match just in time to hear the host country’s anthem. Six or eight of the plastic horns, perhaps half of the total number of vuvuzelas in the house, tooted at its ending, producing not the grating buzz you hear on TV but a bludgeoning beat. A guy reached over the bar to appropriate a horn hanging high over the bar: "Don't tell anybody where I stole this from."

The horns remained quiet until about the 11 th  minute, when, attempting to encourage the lackluster squad on the projection screen, a soloist emitted a few low moos in the dining room. This in turn inspired a brief bebop duet at the bar (sour in tone but not maddeningly bad), and then a few more fans joined them in a weak attempt at a fight song (the sound of fighting tedium). Uruguay scored its goal and shut them up for a while. They tutted back up when the replay was done, signaling the end of a mourning period and initiating a new series belligerent screeches. One vuvuzelist put down her horn in embarrassment, I assume, because she turned to the bartender and said, "Can I get another glass of wine? 'Cuz this is getting embarrassing."

As the afternoon wore on and the home team kept not being any good, it emerged that the vuvuzela has a broader emotional range than you might expect. It can moan plaintively and whine disconsolately, chirp like a cheerleader and rave like a lunatic. In the 74 th  minute, when the fans’ hopes were fading, they quit with the instruments for a while and tried an  Olé  chant, but that didn’t work, either. One guy began fixing strangers with an intense gaze while saying, repeatedly, "Fuck France." When all hope was lost, a small handful of vuvuzelas started honking senselessly, as if to blot out the bleary shame of it all. These proud and prideful people are always squawking about something.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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