Origins

Wesley Sneijder blowing a Vuvuzela. Image by Greg Tee

The origins of the vuvuzela are scientifically unproven, but the popular South African tradition holds that the modern day apparatus is a direct descendent of a kudu horn instrument used to summon African villagers to community gatherings. The word, vuvuzela, has somewhat more reliable origins: it is widely regarded to be a Zulu colloquialism for the phrase, “noise maker”. The word “vuvu”, in the Nguni dialect, means noise and the suffice “zela” indicates that the noun has been made into a verb. In terms of its English translation, vuvuzela could be seen (literally) to mean “noise-ing” or “making a noise” (the phrase, noise maker, takes the verbal form of the original Zulu word and returns it to a noun). In Tswana, the noise maker is known as Lepata Mambu.

In terms of the vuvuzela’s existence outside of South Africa, corneta and other aerophone devices have been utilised in Latin America (most notably, in Brazil) since the early 1960s. In North America, plastic horns known as “Stadium Horns” have similarly been utilised since the 60s. Early in 2010, however, Kaizer Chiefs fanatic Freddie Maake claimed that the instrument so ubiquitous in local stadiums was in fact an invention he had made in 1965. Maake, somewhat surprisingly, substantiated his claim by producing photographic evidence of his four and a half decade old aluminium prototype (constructed using a bicycle horn). Maake further claimed that he had also coined the term vuvuzela, taking it from the Zulu language and intended it to mean “celebration”.

The contemporary vuvuzela is a cheaply manufactured, moulded plastic apparatus approximately 650mm in length. It is trumpet shaped, meaning that the diameter of the mouth piece gradually widens towards its opposite end (increasingly quickly the further away from the mouth piece one looks). The instrument, as typically used, only produces one note, which can be regarded as being more or less equivalent with the Bb note a full tone below middle C.

The vuvuzela has long been used at local soccer matches, and as such, has become synonymous with South African football as much as the “Golden Mile” strip of beach is known for its hotels in Durban. Indeed, the noise maker is part of a greater tradition in which fanatical supporters adopt various elements, including highly expressive dress, to signify not only their respective team, but to indicate their individual dedication to the team’s success. Well known for these types of get ups are the supporters of two of South Africa’s most famous teams (both based in Soweto): Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. The “Soweto derby”, as the annual premiership fixture between the two teams has become known, is a spectacular show of supporters’ creativity as they try to outdo one another with respect to their dedication to their teams. Without fail, the vuvuzela inevitably makes an appearance as part of fans’ apparel.

It was interesting to note that something so ingrained in local culture should have been the focus of so much international attention: the vuvuzela first came to fame during the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup; but even then, it wasn’t anticipated that noise maker would become as much of a point of controversy in the international media as it eventually became. It is not unusual, for example, to find the noise maker on an online shop.

Whatever, precisely, might have been involved in the genesis of the vuvuzela and its popularisation in South Africa, it cannot be disputed that the unassuming instrument played a significant role in making the 2010 FIFA World Cup an authentically South African affair.