The Art of Listening: vuvuzelas

On the sound of the 2010 World Cup.

A couple of mornings ago, I awoke from a dream about being chased by a bee. I might have thought nothing of it, but in the days since, friends have reported similar occurrences. It would seem that the likely culprit is a long plastic horn which non-African football audiences are only now familiar with as the vuvuzela.

Many people do not like the cumulative and enveloping buzz produced by thousands of spectators blowing the horn in unison. Some have complained that it ruins the tournament atmosphere; others that it puts players off their game. RW Johnson, the South African historian unfavourably compares the sound to that of a chainsaw and says the instrument should be banned. (He's not alone in this, but the World Cup organisers have refused to do so.)

I beg to differ. For devotees of pure sound, as followers of the Art of Listening must surely be, massed vuvuzelas are a fascinating thing: more than simply the aural equivalent of a Mexican wave, the constant, tiny variations in volume and tone turn the crowd into a single, responsive entity. When a goal is scored, or a foul committed, there is no change as such, merely an intensification of the sound already there. The usual noises - cheers, chanting, insults, a brass band playing the theme from The Great Escape if it's an England match - are all subsumed into the drone emitted by the horns.

While the drone may be a new discovery for football fans, it has an extensive musical history. Perhaps one or more of the following clips will serve as a good alternative soundtrack to viewers who tire of the vuvuzela.

"De natura sonoris No. 2" by Krzysztof Penderecki. Readers may recognise this from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining - film being an area in which mass audiences have long been conditioned to accept sounds that would otherwise be dismissed as avant-garde or "unlistenable". (Hat-tip here to Zone Styx Travelcard.)

 

L Subramaniam, live at the Royal Albert Hall. An excellent example of how a drone - used extensively in Indian classical music - can act as a springboard for a virtuoso performer, in this case the violinist Subramaniam.

 

Sunn 0))), live in Berlin. Distorted guitars played in low tunings and at high volume.

 

The late guitarist Jack Rose. His reinterpretations of American folk and blues were anything but traditional - which brings us to a final point about the vuvuzela. The South African tourist board claims it is derived from the ancient kudu horn. But beware the authenticity trap! The vuvzela's manufacturers say instead that the prototype came from America, while they have traced its use to a Chinese women's basketball game. A true child of globalisation, then - and a reminder that what you hear is never less than the product of its circumstances.

 

You can read more from The Art of Listening column here.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.