Viva the vuvuzela orchestra!

Pedro Espi-Sanchis conducting a Vuvuzela
Orchestra performance in Mofolo Park,
Soweto.

The orchestra performing at Ellis Park
Stadium in Johannesburg.

Lusanda Ngcaweni

The garish plastic vuvuzela trumpet is synonymous with football in South Africa – and reactions to its brash elephant-like sound are mixed. In a stadium on match day, with hordes of fans bugling away, the vuvuzela is seen by some as a unifying tool, a symbol of affinity to “the beautiful game”. For others, its booming, discordant noise is just too much to bear.

Cape Town-based music educator Pedro Espi-Sanchis has a different view: to him the metre-long, brightly coloured vuvuzela is a rousing instrument that can, when tuned correctly, play in an orchestra as easily as a flute, violin or cello.

Espi-Sanchis says the vuvuzela is a “proudly South African instrument” with roots deep in local traditional music. It’s said that the earliest form of vuvuzela was the kudu horn, called ixilongo in isiXhosa and mhalamhala in Tshivenda. Espi-Sanchis was introduced to it over 30 years ago by renowned South African ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracey.

Power of rhythm

A fan of football himself, Espi-Sanchis came up with the idea of a vuvuzela orchestra after realising crowds at a match could coordinate their trumpeting to make music. “I heard the vuvuzelas at soccer games and the sound was not musical at all. Vuvuzelas need to play rhythms together to really show their power,” he says.

In 2006 Espi-Sanchis and Thandi Swartbooi, head of the South African traditional music group Woman Unite, officially launched the vuvuzela orchestra as part of the Cape Town-based uMoya Music organisation.

“At games you find people in little groups all over the stadium playing on their vuvuzelas, but they don’t listen to each other. All that sound combines to produce a continual drone. South Africa is one of the most musical nations in the world and I know we can do better than that. Imagine 6 000 vuvuzelas playing together and complementing each other with the vuvuzela orchestra to make a harmonious sound – that will make Bafana win!” Bafana Bafana – isiZulu for “the boys, the boys”, are South Africa’s national football team.

You’ll probably need a bit of convincing if you’re the type who thinks vuvuzelas produce nothing but a racket. That sound, says Espi-Sanchis, is a b-flat note, which standard vuvuzelas make. Millions of South African football fans have this type of vuvuzela.

Colour-chorded nation

With decades of experience in playing and teaching how to play traditional African instruments, it’s not surprising that Espi-Sanchis has realised the discordant trumpeting can be modified into something more pleasant to the ears. For example, by making the standard vuvuzela a little longer, it produces a lower pitch; a shorter instrument produces a higher pitch.

“For the most part, songs in South Africa use three chords – tonic, subdominant and dominant. I have created arrangements so that each instrument plays one note in the chord and also makes short little melodies in between to make it more interesting. The three chords can be colour-coded – for example red, blue and green – and this allows you to conduct the orchestra with colours, a good thing for the famous rainbow nation,” he says.

“Once the vuvuzela players get the rhythm, then it’s easy. If fans have tuned instruments, it only takes a couple of minutes to learn a song.” Espi-Sanchis’s dream is to see a stadium filled with vuvuzelas making music from the colours projected on the big screen.

Espi-Sanchis says the vuvuzela orchestra works on the same principles used in three-pipe ensembles played in Southern Africa: the tshikona of the Venda, the dinaka of the Bapedi – both from Limpopo province – and the dithlaka in Botswana. “Like these instruments, the vuvuzela works on the principle of ‘one person, one note’. It’s very democratic,” he says. “Therefore the vuvuzela players have to work together to make music. This is the musical embodiment of democratic principles, the real essence of ubuntu!” Ubuntu is a Southern African philosophy of fellowship and community.

Playing for the public

The vuvuzela orchestra is made up of a core group of seven people, Espi-Sanchis as conductor and soloist on the lekgodilo flute with six musicians each playing a vuvuzela. Their first public appearance was at the Johannesburg Carnival in December 2006. In 2007 in March they performed at the Africa Day celebrations in Newtown and Soweto – both in Gauteng – and at the Nelson Mandela Challenge football event at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium in November.

The orchestra’s most recent performance was at the Super Stadium, west of Pretoria, in June 2008 when Bafana Bafana took on Sierra Leone.

Espi-Sanchis has found an excellent local football fan base to accompany his vuvuzela orchestra. Supporters of Bloemfontein Celtic football club, based in the Free State, “form one of the best fan bases in South African soccer. In November last year [2007] we taught 60 of these fans to play seven songs in just five days,” he says. “Each of our six musicians was responsible for 10 fans, and they taught them to play their parts. Celtic fans also taught us some of their wonderful songs and together we supported Bafana Bafana at the Mandela Challenge by singing and dancing with the vuvuzela orchestra.”

Looking to 2010

“Now we want to bring up a fan base to support our national team. The vuvuzela music can be learnt very quickly … we want to use the Celtic supporters as models for a national fan base. We’re hoping to attract supporters through various advertising mediums, and of course we’re also hoping to attract the attention of the LOC [2010 local organising committee] and Safa [South African Football Association] with an eye to the opening and closing 2010 ceremonies.

With millions of soccer fans scattered all over the country, Espi-Sanchis plans to reach them by running uMoya Music workshops at football clubs. “We can work with 200 to 300 people at a time for a week. We’ll be scheduling a road show around the country for training and then perform at matches together with the standard vuvuzelas.”

Their plans are not limited to South Africa. “This is an African world cup – we want to train people from Cape to Cairo. We want to broaden the use of the vuvuzela to such an extent that it becomes a musical and rhythmic instrument that unites people from all over the continent.”

Keeping busy

When Espi-Sanchis isn’t teaching fans, he’s working on various other projects, one of which is Mzansi Sounds – a marimba-based group with members from Nyanga, Phillipi, Crossroads and Gugulethu townships in Cape Town. Mzansi Sounds is part of a non-governmental organisation that focuses on empowering people with disabilities. Half of the people in the group, which is made up of children, teenagers and adults, have a disability.

Thando Solundwana, a member of Mzansi Sounds, didn’t see the vuvuzela as a musical instrument until Espi-Sanchis introduced them to the band. “I just heard fans blowing them in stadiums and in the streets. I was very surprised that I could make music with it. If I work hard at my music I hope I’ll get the opportunity to play at the opening of 2010 [Fifa World Cup]. I would love to be there,” he says.

Espi-Sanchis is currently attending the Le Rêve de l’Aborigène (The Dream of the Aboriginal) festival in France with Madosini, who is widely known as the queen of Xhosa music and one of South Africa’s best-known players of the uhadi (isiXhosa, meaning bow). The event focuses on people throughout the world who make music from organic instruments. Madosini will play her uhadi, umrhube and mouth harp, or isitolotolo, while Espi-Sanchis will perform on his lekgodilo flute.

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