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Mighty Vuvuzela

Joe Opio/ Twenty Ten

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

The origin of the notorious vuvuzela.

Associated Features: Vuvuzela Day (Photo feature), Vuvuzela takes on the World (Text feature), Vuvuzelas with a difference (Photo feature about seaweed vuvuzelas) and Vuvuzela Orchestra (Audio feature)

Since it blasted its way into global notoriety, no instrument has polarized opinion with similar ease. And for fans and critics alike, it should seem rather fitting that even the very origins of this international tool of mischief are mired by dispute.

Reputed to generate up to 144 decibels, which is louder than a jet plane taking off or even an amplifier at a rock concert, the vuvuzela’s ear-splitting rasp might nevertheless be eclipsed by the raging row over its true origins. It’s a row that at one point even threatened to go before a judge.

Called a “lepatata” in its native Tswana, dispute over the vuvuzela’s genesis turned litigious the moment Masincedane Sport trademarked the name in 1999. The firm was perhaps the first to realize the commercial potential of the trumpet, but, as it was soon to discover, a certain church was about to press its own claims for copyright.

The Shembe, also known as the Nazareth Baptist Church, is a native church is South Africa that has grown into a regional powerhouse with over four million followers. The congregation revere their leader as an African Messiah with direct access to God, and, since its inception 100 years ago, the church has always used an air-horn as a centre-piece in its religious rituals. Members of the Shembe were thus taken aback when Masincedane Sport trademarked the heritage of a religious instrument they treasure.

“We want to be acknowledged as the copyright holders, or at least the inventors of the vuvuzela,” Jija Mptaha, a 69-year old reverend who has been with the church for decades states. “It has been commercialized and people are making money off it, but we aren’t that interested in the financial side. True, it would be nice if these entities profiting from the vuvuzela would give some money back to the church but that’s their own prerogative. All we want is to be recognized as having brought this instrument into the world.”

Visiting the Shembe’s mass gathering in Ulundi, a three-hour trip from Durban, one is instantly struck by the air-horns being blown by groups of men dressed in full traditional regalia. Unlike the shorter, more colourful customized plastic vuvuzelas littering the South African football landscape, the religious vuvuzela is a different creature. It’s metallic, three times as long and actually blown in coordinated fashion to create a particular rhythm. Very different from the impulsive, willy-nilly blasts that have made the vuvuzelas’ discordant noise the bane of many a football fan watching on TV.

Mptaha bristles at the popular suggestion that the vuvuzela is merely derived from the traditional Zulu Kudu horn, an instrument made from an antelope horn that was used by the ancient Zulu for communication. “That’s a misconception. It’s the kuduzela [the deeper, louder cousin of the vuvuzela] which comes from a kudu horn. The vuvuzela originated here. It was introduced in 1910 by Prophet Isaiah Shembe, who is the founder of our church as a tool of worship. Originally, it was made out of cane wood, but later we used metal instead. Ours is very different, but still, the idea was smuggled from here without permission.”

It goes without saying that FIFA would never allow the Shembe version of the vuvuzela anywhere near the World Cup stadiums. With its length and metallic make-up, the religious vuvuzela is everything FIFA fears a potential fan weapon could be. Already, FIFA had nagging fears about even the common short plastic ones; threatening them with an instant ban if they were hurled or used as a weapon of violence. Mptaha comments: “As you can see, it has been modified and some would say ‘cheapened.’ All this was because of commercialism. The common ones are plastic, easy-to-make and portable.”

Football-lovers often insist that the Beautiful Game is a religion in its own right. But how the vuvuzela left the worship grounds of the Shembe to become central to the game is shrouded in mystery. Mptaha though asserts that the instrument must have been taken away from the grounds by Zulu Shembe followers who also had a passion for football. It’s an assertion that’s corroborated by officials from the Durban-based AmaZulu FC, a top-flight South African club that claims to have had the first vuvuzela on its terraces in the late 1980s.

What’s more, AmaZulu officials reveal that the first vuvuzela they heard indeed bore distinct similarities to the ones that were all the rage during the mass religious gathering at Inanda.

“The first match I saw a vuvuzela being used was in 1987 when AmaZulu [formerly Zulu Royals] played Jomo Cosmos,” Philani Mabaso, the AmaZulu publicist reminisces. “There was a man with a big, metal vuvuzela. Most of our supporters are members of the Shembe church, which is very prominent in our province. They would come from their congregation straight to the match. I think we were one of the first, if not the first, because of this.”

The vuvuzela, in its current global incarnation, is the brainchild of Neil Van Schalkwyk, the proprietor of Masincedane Sport. A former footballer and part-time plastic molder, Van Schalkwyk got his inspiration from Soweto fans that brought their metal vuvuzelas to games in Cape Town. He quickly started mass-producing cheaper, plastic ones. “When we started we were selling around 1,000 a month if we were lucky,” Van Schalkwyk revealed last week. “We’re now selling around 50,000 a month. We’ve also sold the licence to a company in Germany.”

Van Schalkwyk acknowledges the legitimacy of the Shembe’s claim as inventors of the original vuvuzela. “They have definitely played a huge role in horn blowing. I recognize their contribution to the culture.” Van Schalkwyk and Masincedane Sport are in advanced talks with the KwaZulu-Natal-based church to cultivate an amicable, mutually-rewarding resolution to the dispute. Shembe Church spokesman Enoch Mthembu welcomed the gesture, saying it was long overdue. “A lot of our members used to manufacture vuvuzelas, and their income has disappeared. We don’t want a share in the profits, but as custodians and creators of this thing we have not benefited.”

Mthembu perceives Masincedane Sport as a new partner and threatened to pursue legal action against copycat manufacturers from abroad. “We have the right to choose a partner (Masincedane), and to close other companies manufacturing the vuvuzela. They’ve taken that instrument from our members and converted it into plastic as a quick way of making money.”

The Shembe’s cause might be helped by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), whose provincial secretary Zet Luzipho acknowledged the complex copyright issues involved. “We did know that at some point this thing with the vuvuzela would become a challenge with everyone wanting to claim patents over it and now it is happening. However, we cannot avoid the serious issue that as South Africans we do not protect our own product.”

Since South Africa was declared hosts for the 2010 World Cup, the hitherto little-known vuvuzela has grown into a £44m industry. The Shembe might not even get a fraction of that cake in the end, but for these pious followers of the burgeoning religion, simply earning their venerable founder his due credit, however belatedly, could prove priceless enough.

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