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Loud and proud

July 2, 2010

Some love the horns, others can’t stand them. Three entrepreneurs have brought South Africa's noisy sports stadium instrument to Germany for the World Cup.

A fan blows a vuvuzela at a training session of the German national team in South Africa
The vuvuzela: a nuisance and a health hazard?Image: AP

When the soccer World Cup tournament kicked off in South Africa on Friday, a cacophony of horns saturated the venue in Johannesburg. South Africa's colorful plastic horn is all the rage in the host nation but loud sounds from the unique instrument have also invaded countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom, thousands of kilometers away from where the vuvuzela originated.

In the fall of 2007, German marketing expert Gerd Kehrberg stood at a bar enjoying a beer after an ice hockey match when he heard the sound of the South African vuvuzela.

"Uwe Seeler?" he asked himself, thinking of the German football legend of the 1950s and 60s, whose name is pronounced similarly. Clearly, Kehrberg had never heard of the instrument before.

The following day, he did some research on the Internet and learned that the vuvuzela – also known as "lepatata" – is a horn, approximately one metre in length, commonly blown by fans at football matches in South Africa. The horn requires some lip and lung power to blow and emits a loud monotone, which sounds like a foghorn.

A hundred years ago, the instrument was made of animal horn and was deeply rooted in South African culture. But today, it's a mass-produced article.

Frank Urbas, Gerd Kehrberg, Dirk Zimmermann (left to right)
Three German entrepreneurs came up with an idea for a 'high-tech' vuvuzelaImage: Jutta Wasserrab

Horn with ‘a soul'

"That's just what we marketing people are looking for," Kehrberg said. In the vuvuzela, they found a fan article "with a soul and history."

Kehrberg makes no secret of the fact that he loves the vuvuzela. He admits it's terribly loud but is quick to point out that football's governing body, FIFA, knew all along the tournament in South Africa would be the noisiest World Cup ever.

The South African original produces a phenomenal 130 decibels - close to the sound of a Forumula One race car passing by.

Making it marketable

For Dirk Zimmermann, however, it was not love at first sight. The vuvuzela had to grow on the plastics expert, who is specialized in manufacturing components for the medical and auto industries.

A year ago, Kehrberg and his partner Frank Urbas came into Zimmermann's office with the plastic blowing horn. They had secured the brand, production and marketing rights for Europe, and were now presenting the cheap plastic object to their potential partner.

Zimmermann said he was slightly surprised by the proposition: it was clear to him straightaway that the original vuvuzela would be difficult to market in Germany. First of all, it looked like countless other plastic blowing horns around the world. And second of all, it was manufactured using the so-called blow-moulding process.

"That means it has about the same quality as a liquid detergent bottle," Zimmermann said.

High-tech horn

In addition to the name, Zimmermann had to find something that made the horn unique, and after an hour of brainstorming, he came up with the idea of splitting it up into three parts.

A fan blows a vuvuzela at a training session of the German team in South Africa while others look on
The vuvuzela is proving a big hit with German fans at home and in South AfricaImage: picture alliance/dpa

That involved a bit of high-tech stuff, according to Urbas. "You have to be able to put it together easily," he said. "It also has to be firm enough to be blown without disintegrating but at the same time light enough to fall apart if someone hits you with it."

And there is something else that makes the three-part instrument so attractive: dismantled, it takes up little space.

While manufacturers in South Africa are competing with each other to make the vuvuzela – the most popular fan article of the tournament – be as loud as possible, Urbas and Kehrberg are promoting their version of the horn as the world's quietest. How? Not only has Zimmermann split the horn into three parts; he has also fitted it with a silencer.

Barrage of criticism

Since last year's FIFA Federations Cup, the sound of the vuvuzela has drawn significant criticism, with some footballer players and broadcasters pushing for the instrument to be banned. They said the horn created an infernal din in the stadium and sounded like a swarm of aggressive wasps on televisions and radios.

FIFA, however, decided in favor of the vuvuzela, arguing that the horn is deeply rooted in South Africa's football culture.

The three German entrepreneurs had hoped to sell five million vuvuzelas before the World Cup kicked off but decline to confirm how many they had actually sold.

Colorful vuvuzela parts on display
The German version can be dismantled into three partsImage: Jutta Wasserrab

Many soccer fans in Germany and other parts of Europe are eager to share in the excitement of the World Cup by blowing vuvuzelas – but clearly not everyone.

Clampdown on vuvuzelas

Doctors have even warned that people could suffer permanent ear damage from the high decibels if they stood too close to blowing vuvuzelas.

A study conducted by Phonak, a hearing aids manufacturer, claims Vuvuzelas can cause hearing loss, emitting sounds louder than a chainsaw, the Bild newspaper reported.

Concerns over noise nuisance have prompted authorities in several German cities to consider a ban on the instruments in public viewing areas, where thousands of people gather to watch matches on huge screens.

Fans in cities such as Nuremburg and Bremen, for instance, must leave their vuvuzelas at home. In Frankfurt, however, they are free to blow their horns – and imitate the unique atmosphere of World Cup venues in South Africa.

Author: Jutta Wasserab (rb)
Editor: John Blau