Ah, the glorious vuvuzela. In this, the season of the Football World Cup, it's been the object of much misguided complaint and derision. In the context of post-apartheid South Africa, however, it's actually "freedom's blaring horn," as the New York Time's Roger Cohen has forcefully argued.
Constance Stuart Larrabee: Man Playing Ram's Horn, South Africa, c. 1946 [actually 1945]. (Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection, Smithsonian Institution. Click directly on the photo to see a larger image.)
True, the vuvuzelas are what Americans call stadium horns, which have been around since I was a kid -- a very long time ago.
But, as Cohen argued in the New York Times, a vuvuzela carries a "powerful symbolism" that the stadium horn does not.
Rugby, the traditional sporting stronghold of the white Afrikaner, has shunned it. Soccer, dominated by blacks, has embraced it. Yet today [in a democratic, post-apartheid South Africa] Afrikaners flock into black Soweto to watch rugby and whites and blacks both carry their vuvuzelas into World Cup games.
In fact, the the symbolism goes even deeper. South Africans have been making trumpets out of animal horns for many hundreds, probably thousands, of years. They were used to summon, to warn, to herald, and to celebrate. And, as Cohen says, the road from "the kudu horn made from the spiral-horned antler to the plastic horn is not such a great distance."
Sometime during the mid-1940s, the photographer Constance Stuart Larrabee -- one of the first great female photojournalists, who spent her childhood and early career in South Africa and lived most of her life in the United States -- captured a ram's horn as it was being used in a religious ceremony.
According to the Smithsonian Institution, which holds Larrabee's archives, this photo...
...is featured in Bengt Sundkler's book "Bantu Prophets in South Africa." There is a caption below the photograph that reads as follows: "Prophet With Mitre and Ram's Horn. Typical of the blend of Bantu religion and Christian ideas, to be found in certain Bantu churches. Dressed in blue vestments with the star of David, which symbol has a mysterious fascination for some prophets it has been revealed to them in dreams, they say.
So fear not the vuvuzela, nor despise it. In the depths of its music are the sounds of freedom and history.
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Many thanks to Finbarr O'Reilly for reacquainting me with Larrabee's work.
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PS, 9 November 2010: This photo is part of a series that Larrabee made in 1945 to accompany an article on contemporary African religions, by the scholar Bengt Sundkler, that appeared in the South African magazine Libertas. In 1948, 16 of the photos were included in Sundkler's Bantu Prophets in South Africa.