Dear Chief Secretary to the Treasury,
I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.
Signed, Liam Byrne

(Outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury. May 2010)

Monday, 14 June 2010

On Vuvuzelas, Horns and musical political football.

Mrs R is neither a fan nor a follower of football, but she did see some of England's game the other evening and was quite surprised by the noise levels in the stadium. To her it sounded a bit like thousands of kazoos being blown at the same time, making it difficult to hear anything else, including referees whistles.

She's now learned that there's a bit of media/internet/blogosphere battle about this music noise. Some footballers, such as Ronaldo, are on record as saying the noise is distracting, others are saying it's so loud that the players can't communicate on the pitch. Others are saying the complainers should be quiet because the vuvuzela is a
"proudly South African instrument" with roots deep in local traditional music
That's as may be, but Mrs R isn't too sure of the link between 'traditional music', of any sort, and football - because the two things seem slightly strange bedfellows.

It would seem that this musical tradition didn't seem to bother Austrian professional football association too much when, in 2009, they imposed a stadium ban on vuvuzela and they did it ...
.... not for the deafening and tuneless din they produce, but because they might be used as missiles.
And the 'tradition' didn't seem to faze a scientist who reckons using these plastic horns could be a health risk
... vuvuzelas can have negative effects on people’s ear drums when they are exposed to the sound for a certain time period [and] could also be spreading colds and flu germs,
And tradition doesn't seem to have worried Cape Town Sports Council too much either, when they decided to
officially ban ... Vuvuzelas from all public places in Cape Town. This follows major local and international complaints about noise pollution.

Well, let's move away from all that for a moment, and watch a youtube of a happy and enthusiastic vuvuzela player on his way to a football match.

And here's a video that is meant to explain a bit more of the traditions etc., although it doesn't seem to do it very well.

While she was watching these videos Mrs R was struck by similarities to other instruments she's both seen and heard, and that have similar origins - similar reasons for being used, mostly for communication over long distances.
The ancestor of the vuvuzela is said to be the kudu horn - ixilongo in isiXhosa, mhalamhala in Tshivenda - blown to summon African villagers to meetings.
Mrs R, in her musical ignorance, reckons that any musical instrument that's just a tube without either valves or carefully positioned holes along the length of the tube to help the player hit the right note is similar to the vuvuzela. So she went off to try to find some comparable, or vaguely similar, instruments from other countries. All these instruments, by the way, seem to be listed as 'brass' rather than woodwind, the difference being that
A brass instrument is a musical instrument whose sound is produced by sympathetic vibration of air in a tubular resonator in sympathy with the vibration of the player's lips. Brass instruments are also called labrosones, literally meaning "lip-vibrated instruments"
Whereas woodwind instruments
... produce sound when the player blows air against a sharp edge or through a reed, causing the air within its resonator (usually a column of air) to vibrate
So that wipes out things like the recorder, piccolo and so on - the handy, pocket-sized things, and leaves the much bigger ones that need a long tube to resonate, and for the sound to carry.

There's always the melodic hosepipe. (Go on, watch it!)

But that's probably a bit too recent a bit of a joke innovation to be 'traditional', or is it?

Anyhow, let's go to a bit older, and quite a bit bigger. First off, from Australia there's the didgeridoo. It's wooden, because Australia's native animals don't have horns. It's an impressive instrument creating a sound that carries over huge distances.

The same sort of thing, made to create a sound that will carry a long way, applies to Alphorns - also made from wood, not a trace of cow/sheep/goat horn in sight. Here's a short video from Alphorn festival on Maennlichen summit, Switzerland. Go on, listen to it, it's only 48 seconds long, and Mrs R bets it'll make your ears tingle.

And a video report from the Wall Street Journal about the Alphorn, with a bit about technology too - technology that's helped make the things a bit more portable.

Then there's the Post Horn too. The vuvuzela looks remarkably like a plastic posthorn, but the posthorn made a sound which was, apparently
... regularly heard throughout Victorian Britain up until about 1850 ... blown by the guard as the mail coaches covered the length and breadth of the country. The horn had several functions: it warned toll gate keepers of the coach’s approach and warned other road users to let the coach have right of way. It also let keepers of posting inns know of the coach’s approach so they could have the next team of horses ready for when the coach arrived.
Doesn't sound very African, and in fact is a quite European sort of thing, so here, for those who might like to hear it, is the 'Post Horn Gallop'

That piece of music, rather uncannily, brings Mrs R back to the subject of football - because she's discovered that a British Football Club adopted the Posthorn Gallop as their theme tune, and did it way back in 1941 - which she thinks is long enough ago in football history for it to be 'a tradition'. (sound quality on this short recording isn't brilliant)

Mrs Rigby has managed to let her mind wander a bit more, but she's managed to keep to the subject of 'traditions'. She wondered what British, or even European, football officials might do if all the fans of that particular football club decided to get very musical, and decided to go out and buy themselves some post horns, even curled up ones, and then decided to learn to play their own club's traditional tune during each of their team's matches.

She's fairly sure that sort of thing wouldn't be, umm, encouraged - for the reasons outlined at the beginning of this post - health and safety, and noise pollution. The other reason it would be discouraged is because it would distract the players from being able to do what they're there for - which is to play football, and try to get more goals than their opponents.

Knowing that the vuvuzela has already been banned by the Cape Town Sports Council, presumably without too much trouble, Mrs R has to ask why there's a sudden outcry to allow 'traditional' musical 'rights' to be able to take precedent over health and safety, and ignore the 'sporting' and maybe even musical 'traditions' of all the other teams participating in the World Cup? After all, we're always told that a considerate host makes concessions to their guests, makes them feel welcome, isn't selfish ... that sort of thing. Good hosts do that ... don't they?

The other thing is that, embarrassingly, Mrs R can't understand how a cheap, mass-produced, team-branded tube of plastic (marketed with added kudos of cleverly-contrived nationalist hyperbole) can ever be 'traditional' - when elsewhere in the world traditional musical instruments are craftsmen made, and are lovingly cared for by their musical owners, and are used to play rhythms and/or tunes. All the vuvuzela seems to be able to do is buzz. You see, despite spending quite some time searching Mrs R hasn't found a single instance of a vuvuzela being used to play a rhythm, a beat, or a tune. She hasn't found a vuvuzela band, she hasn't found a vuvuzela orchestra, she hasn't found a vuvuzela consort.

Nobody'd ever dream of trying to take an Alphorn to a football match, except perhaps for pre-match, crowd-pleaser, entertainment, and Mrs R can't imagine even the most persuasive of Aussies getting through the turnstiles with a didgeridoo clutched in their hands, neither their ethnicity nor ancient musical roots and rights would come into it, because it simply wouldn't be the right thing to do.

So are we back to that old emotional blackmail again? Is this the sort of emotional blackmail that nobody can argue with, and which carefully ignores the key point of the disagreement? If so, then Mrs R thinks those making the loudest excuses are doing themselves a disservice, and she thinks they should stop, for a moment, and consider how they would perceive this if it were to happen elsewhere, and for an important international competition for a different sport/pastime/hobby.

Would it be reasonable, for example, to have bagpipes playing in the background during a curling competition? No? But using the same argument, why not? Bagpipes are a fairly ancient instrument and are accepted as being something that's 'traditionally Scottish'. How many pipers would it take to fill a football stadium? Here's what 1,000 of them sound like.

Flippant? Nope, not one bit.

It's using exactly the same sort of argument - traditional music alongside a traditional sport - but in the case of curling and bagpipes the two have much closer national ties than do the vuvuzela and football because football is a game believed to have its roots in mediaeval Europe, unless of course they've changed that bit of history when Mrs R wasn't looking.

The key point in this vuvuzela debate should, surely, be that the World Cup is an international, quadrennial, football competition.

It isn't a band competition, it isn't an international music festival.

The World Cup competition is a series of football matches that the teams and players have been preparing for ever since the last one, four years ago, and each team deserves a fair chance of playing without being distracted. Ronaldo shouldn't, for example, be having to say, right at the last moment, that
"A lot of players don't like them, but they are going to have to get used to them."
Mrs R doesn't think this competition should have anything to do with music once the pre-match entertainers have left the field to the footballers and the first whistle has been blown. These men are the best players from their countries, they should be able to compete fairly, and equally, and within the rules of football - to make sure the best team wins the competition.

And if you disagree, please explain why.


Quiet_Man said...

Many countries use different instruments during football matches, but, and it's a big but, not all the fans use them and they often enhance the atmosphere without actually creating a maelstrom of noise that makes it sound as if a football match is taking place inside a hornets nest. Hell, the vuvuzelas even make the "England band" sound good despite only being able to play the great escape for nigh on an hour.
Normally I'm against banning anything, but this noise doesn't add to the atmosphere and apparently isn't that traditional in S.A. football either only having being introduced about 9 years ago.
I doubt anyone will do anything about it, but it is spoiling my listening enjoyment far more than ITV commentators ever could.

Gordon said...

I am really against banning owt that doesn't cause harm to others and even though I cannot stand the noise of these things, the locals do appear to be having a belter of a time and enjoying the footie. I enjoy football and the noise is irritating, but only slighty more than the numpties speaking in the background. The primadonnas on field are paid enough and should be skillful enough to get over the noise, after all I'm sure the noise at Anfield is probably daunting, made worse by the fact that you can probably understand what they're saying.
Enough though, what a stunningly good post with an eccentricity count beyond marvellous; I loved every bit of every clip to the end, to go from a hollow plastic carrot to a carbon fibre alpenhorn with added bagpipes in one post is up there with Potty Time and The Goons. Truly worthy.

Witterings From Witney said...

Nice well constructed post Mrs. R!

Re the vuvuzela - all I can say to those agin it is if it causes that much irritation then dont bloody switch the tv on!

Other countries probably hate our 'earwigo' 'earwigo' rubbish!

Quiet_Man said...

Ah, but WfW the England fans don't do the earwigo all the time, they do the " world wars and one world cup, Rule Britannia and weirdly the British national anthem, as well as Engerlund.

Macheath said...

WfW, I'd forgotten 'Earwigo' - I shall add it to my post on the subject forthwith. QM, don't forget the 'Scummy Gnome' - as in Football Scummy Gnome'.

Mrs R, a very fine post! Particularly enjoyed the pipes - reminded me of a weekend I spent in Hawick that happened to coincide with the world Pipe Band championships. Once heard, never forgotten!

Capello Fabio said...

There are a couple of petitions online to ban the vuvuzela from the World Cup. Here's one:

Anonymous said...

My argument is that they drown out the atmosphere of the game. You cannot hear people sing or chant or their bands.

When Brazil play hearing their samba and dancing throughout the game is what Brazilian supporters bring tot he world cup. Instead we will hear nothing but a buzzing sound the whole game.

Listen tot he first video here and tell me how you would like to be stood amongst that ?

They should ban them. South African rugby stadia banned them as they were ruining the atmosphere. During the Confederations cup a few groups tried to get them banned for this world cup but few listened.

A cheap 80p plastic horn. Shame, I though South Africa would want to have been remembered for something worthwhile,not a piece of tat.

subrosa said...

Excellent post Mrs R. The problem with this 'instrument' is that it is one continuous tone. That's what penetrates the mind.

Now, if they could play something melodious...

The England match was being watched here last Friday. Not by me I hasten to add. I decanted to a TV free room to read in peace and quiet. Then I decided the fridge was playing up so wandered into the kitchen. No, it was silent. Then I decided it was a bathroom fan and checked. Silence.

I decided to ask the TV viewer if the noise could be heard and that's when it was explained.