Skip to main content

It's All About the Buzz...

Duke ethnomusicologist sounds off on the vuvuzela

That noise you hear from the World Cup games are made by vuvuzelas, a popular instrument in South Africa.

How much do you value buzz? World Cup fans around the world are confronting this question as the sound of the vuvuzela fills soccer stadiums in South Africa and electrifies airwaves worldwide.Duke ethnomusicologist Louise Meintjes says for Africans, a buzzy tone quality is a critical component of musical expression."The vuvuzela -- an instrument of few pitches on which short rhythmic riffs are played -- foregrounds the idea of buzz," says Meintjes, an expert on African music and author of "The Sound of Africa." Instruments such as the West African kora, a string harp-lute, the traditional djembe drum, or the Zimbabweana mbira, a wooden board with staggered metal keys, traditionally add rattling metal pieces such as rings or bottle caps to the instrument.

"These rattle as the instrument is played, exciting the sound and adding to the musical texture," Meintjes says. "The vuvuzela's buzziness has this same quality. It is an effect that is crucial in a lot of African music."She explains that the vuvuzela, a long, plastic trumpet traditionally played at South African soccer matches, is similar to the bugle or other types of horns found at rural South African cultural celebrations, and in some religious contexts. The buzzing sound it produces may be perceived as irritating by foreign fans and some sports commentators because it is antithetical to a western European-derived musical aesthetic, she says.

"Colonial travel writers used similar language to describe the African music they encountered," she says.The recent controversy over the vuvuzela may actually lead to its use at other South African sporting events, Meintjes predicts."It's not an instrument you would likely find at rugby or cricket matches," she says. "But I wouldn't be surprised if vuvuzelas start appearing there after their exposure in the World Cup, where they have been both celebrated as South African and struggled over."However South African sports fans should know the vuvuzela is not for the faint of heart. "It's hard to blow and it's hard to keep the sound going, interlocking with fellow trumpeters in the stands, if you're dancing at the same time," says Meintjes.