July 4th, 2010

In Defence Of The Vuvuzela

(This piece was commissioned a couple of weeks ago for a broadsheet but bumped for reasons of space. Still got paid, mind)

The ceaseless, barely differentiated, sheet waves of tuneless, b-flat drone, hour after hour, game after game – I love the vuvuzela. In full, choral effect, the vuvuzela reminds of the sustained tsunami of air horns which used to accompany European and international games in the 1970s and early 1980s. This was one of the most impressive auditory experiences of my young life, one which connoted the remote, exotic nature of international live football.


The air horns eventually disappeared, replaced by more conventional terrace chanting. However, they were, in my freak instance, the gateway that led me to a fascination with more extreme modern musical forms such as the primal, electronic Krautrock of Faust, the cosmic, exploratory jazz of Sun Ra, the pioneering work in musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer and Stockhausen. Sadly, I’d appear to be in a freak in that regard. For despite its introduction into the  aesthetic canon around a century ago, and despite its having been a key component of other world musics for centuries longer, there remains a strong, mainstream Western, hands-over-the-ears fear and loathing the idea of noise as a form of cultural expression.

The range of satirical responses to the vuvuzela has been somewhat unanimous; wags in both tabloids and broadsheets have compared the noise to “a swarm of bees”. TV pundits, meanwhile, have observed more than once that vuvuzelas resemble “a swarm of bees”, while over in America, on Jon Stewart’s razor-hip The Daily Show, they suggested that the sound of the horns was like “a swarm of bees”. Guys, do better. Remarks like these offend me not as a lover of dissonant music but as a lover of comedy. But it’s the anguished anger, rather than the feeble mockery, which is most striking.


The vuvuzela has receded into the background as the tournament has settled down and the TV channels found ways of filtering away what they and many of its audience consider its “worst excesses”. However, after the blaring crescendo of the opening World Cup game, which featured hosts South Africa, there were immediate cries for the instrument to be banned. One Facebook group set up calling for its suppression swiftly escalated towards a membership of 200,000 after just a few days. The virulence of the complaints and the extent of the distress suffered by those merely watching games on television, including headaches and tinnitus, has been extraordinary. It would be unfair to tar all plaintiffs with the brush of racism, though remarks on Facebook such as “bunch of white guys afraid to tell a bunch of black guys what to do” and references to South African culture as “retarded” makes me wonder if there is indeed a dubious moral whiff about the anti-vuvuzela movement, which has echoes of the resentment at the noise levels generated by West Indian fans at cricket games. The noise of our own, traditional, familiar sing-songs and party rituals we can cheerfully bear. The noise of others, of other cultures, rather less so – particular, perhaps, those of darker skin colours, with murky associations of the primal, the untamed, or, to borrow a word from our Facebook friend, the “retarded”.

The implications of primitivism are particularly ironic, since contemporary art forms owe much to Africa – Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon, the birthpoint of non-figurative art, clearly took African masks as its inspiration, though Picasso rather stuffily denied it. Early Dada events featured naïve recreations of African tribal drumming.  Further afield, Buddhism, the dervishes, Japanese gagaku and gamelan have influenced academically approve artists ranging from Debussy to extreme Improv group AMM. Since the Crusades, which introduced to Western music a host of new Eastern instruments, “high” classical music has developed by plundering other cultures.

The Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo would have been aghast at today’s “passéist” aversion to noise. In his Art Of Noises manifesto in 1913 he joyfully thundered, “We find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearing, for example, the Eroica or the Pastoral”. He even devised crude lever-operated “noise intonators”, prototypes for today’s synthesisers, to illustrate his point.

Composers from Edgard Varèse onward excitedly took up Russolo’s ideas, which have resounded and developed down the decades in jazz, rock, improvised music and various electronic hybrids. And yet, 100 years on, Russolo’s ideas have failed to stick with a wider audience, even of the sort who regularly frequent in huge numbers the Tate Modern and contemplate its Rothkos and Pollocks. For although modern, abstract art and modern, dissonant, atonal music developed in tandem during the 20th century, derive practically from the same root, their fortunes have diverged. Modern art has an extremely lucrative high end, is reverentially pored over at by the shuffling multitude at exhibitions. Modern, avant garde music has no equivalent of the Original, no high end. It is still relatively obscure, gets little or no wider airing and still sounds foreign and absurd even to people who have long since acquired the good taste to understand that a Jackson Pollock is not the result of a madman run amok with tins of paint, indulged by a gullible arthouse establishment. Over the years, the price tag of the original, and endless newspaper stories about Rothkos, Bacons, Picassos, etc, going under the hammer at auction for millions, have accustomed people to the idea that this abstract art stuff is of authentic and high value. Avant garde music remains marginal and undervalued by comparison.

Moreover, experimental sound is liable to inculcate more distress than the visual. Were this bright, abstract, African friezes we were discussing, there would be no complaints of people experiencing eyeball strain, or exasperation at the lack of animal, fruit or people shapes. Music is different. You cannot shut it out, there are no earlids – you cannot walk away from it as you can a canvas –  you must be enveloped in it for its duration. Unexpected noises, moreover, raise fears that date back to our hunter-gather prehistory. Despite its longevity, “deliberately inflicted noise” is something to which people are generally unaccustomed, unexposed, protected by broadcasters and record companies fearful of scaring away mass audiences, offering instead the tonal, the tuneful, the familiar, the reassuring. With this World Cup, however, an audience of millions upon millions has had the rare experience of being held in prolonged captivity to instrumental noise, and a great many have reacted with exaggerated and reactionary ferocity. Yet if you’ve listened, as I and many others have, to, say, the US minimalist Phill Niblock then the vuvuzela holds no fears. It’s on the same spectrum. Not to make claims for its use in stadia as high art but there is a way of attending to the vuvuzela en masse, rather than indignantly lamenting the lack of a tune, which yields its own pleasures – its undulations, its textures, its individual details, the happy way it occasionally washes rhythmically back and forth, or simply its awesome passages of clamourous intensity. And frankly, what it does drown out – the boorish, over-familiar chants, a British brass band playing The Great Escape ad nauseam, infuriatingly inane commentaries? Aren’t all these things worth forfeiting?

Quite apart from the cheapness and plasticity which has piqued many detractors (“real” music should be expensive, metallic), the vuvuzela has exposed a persistent, aggressive timidity which has always denied wider access to the music dreamt of by Russolo, Varèse, Schoenberg long before most of us were born. Sound does have its inherent difficulties and one does sympathise with the eardrum damage that can be suffered by a 124 decibel blast of a vuvuzela at close range. But for most of us, it is a distant phenomenon. I harbour the hope that as this tournament progresses and excitement mounts, the stadium noise will became less of a bone of contention, even acquire positive connotations. Maybe a young freak or two out there might even make the exciting leap from the vuvuzela to John Coltrane’s Ascension.

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