By Victoria Foyt
The first time I heard the blowing of a conch shell I was visiting Key West, Florida while researching elements of the novel that would become Valentine to Faith. On that sunny summer day, I found myself at the large concrete buoy that marks the southernmost point of the continental United States, when from behind me came a blast that set my heart racing. How I had spent my youth in Coral Gables and traveled throughout the Bahamas and Caribbean, yet never heard this this sound before is a mystery. At that moment, my luck changed and so began a new chapter in my lifelong love affairs with seashells.
Anyone who has heard the nautical roar of a conch trumpet knows there is no escaping it. Attention must be paid. I turned to see a man holding a large queen conch in his hand. The air around him vibrated as if reordered to match the positive energy emitted by the shell. I approached the conch player’s vendor table, and upon closer inspection, saw that the shell’s top shire was shorn to create an opening that would function much like the mechanics of any wind instrument.
Conch is a common name that refers to many species of the mollusk that lives within the live shell. The vendor’s display included conchs local to the area, including various queen or king conches. With its lustrous pearl mantle, majestic curves, and commanding size, it’s easy to understand why the conch has come to symbolize wealth & prosperity. Besides the use as a trumpet, its meat is considered a delicacy, the shell is found in jewelry such as cameos, and many indigenous cultures have used it for different tools, including cups or paint wells.
The vendor explained that the size and shape and weight of the shell determines the sound, which he demonstrated. A thicker heavier conch will have more bass. A young conch, a higher sound. He gave me an impromptu lesson in how to blow the conch and made it look easy. It was not. My first attempts produced only pathetic, flat puffs. Nevertheless, I purchased a queen conch of medium size and weight that, if I could master the technique, produced a loud melancholy bellow. Out of the many shells, this one struck a chord in my heart. It called to me.
I carried my conch trumpet back to California and placed it on my bookshelf. Some cultures believe the conch to be a deity that should never sit on the floor. While continuing to work on Valentine to Faith, I often considered how best to describe the trumpet’s unique sound. It will simultaneously shower you with the joyfulness of daybreak in spring while reminding you of the inescapable end each of us will one day face. Its music is powerful, earthy, uplifting, mournful, and beyond words. The history of the sea and its lifegiving tale are the notes played.
From this primal song came insight into my characters’ journey. While attempting once more to play my shell trumpet, I envisioned the misguided Captain and his young daughter, our heroine, Angel, under stormy skies at Rest Beach where he introduces her to the sea goddess, Yemayá, and instructs her how to call upon the Great Lady for aid.
He raised the cut spire to his lips and blew hard. A rich, haunting sound like an ancient foghorn blasted the stormy air. Buuoooaah! When a few stragglers looked in their direction, the Captain shook his head.
No one talks to the sea anymore. In the old days many people call to La Señora. You hear it like a rooster in the morning, nothing strange.
Do it again, Papi.
With lovesick eyes he searched the granite-colored waves. Did he really expect to see a mermaid? Lifting the conch once more, he slid his fingers inside the lip of the shell, moving them deep or short or all the way to the tip, as if playing a trumpet. By turns, the sound rumbled with primal earthiness or soared like a heavenly choir. The music rose into the windstorm like a sea creature that grabbed Angel with its tentacles and left her dumbstruck.
By the time Angel is a single mother, she has buried the terrors of the past, cut ties with her family and rejected their beliefs. Above all, she must safeguard her teenage daughter’s future from unhealthy patterns, particularly loss and longing, laced with dogged belief, which the women before them have unknowingly repeated. When Angel stumbles upon a queen conch shell in her backyard, she sees it as a bad omen. While she may have rejected her family’s ways, the sea goddess has not forgotten her and has come to claim her. The advent of the conch is a turning point in Angel’s journey, a summons to change course before it’s too late to find love and forgiveness.
It would be easy to dismiss her fears as mere superstition, yet throughout history many cultures have revered the conch, and like the Captain, used it as a means to mark important events. The fictional King Neptune ruled the waves with a shell trumpet. The ancient Mayans used the conch to call ancestors or supernaturals, and on a mundane level, to begin ceremonies or announce the return of hunters. In Aztec culture, the deity Quetzalcoatl used the quiquiztli to create life and to defeat the Lord of the Dead. The Hindu god, Lord Krishna, blew the conch to begin and end battle. A shell trumpet is used by Buddhist monks to summon devotees to prayer and by Bengali Braham to celebrate a bridegroom. From the canoes of Polynesians and Hawaiians, the sea horn alerted islanders of their approach. To “conch someone” is to honor them by blowing it in tribute or remembrance. Even the US Coast Guard lists the conch horn as an “approved sound making device.” Lastly, in many island cultures, as the majestic sun touches the ocean or its fiery crown slips below the horizon, one may hear the conch herald the close of the day.
Ritual can layer deep meaning to our fast-paced lives and provide time for reflection. Perhaps a conch trumpet would aid you in setting an intention for your private or family or community rituals. Whatever your beliefs may be, there is no denying the force of the conch’s call.
Eventually, I did learn to blow the conch, and so can you. Here are a few tips:
- Hold the shell in your dominant hand. Using two hands will affect the sound, which may or may not be desirable.
- Pucker your lips and place them against the hole at the tip. Wetting your lips may help the sound to vibrate.
- Breathe in through your nose and fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand.
- Blow out through your lips. They should feel a buzzing sensation. Don’t be discouraged if, like me, you first get a flat bleat. Pull from your gut, tighten your cheeks, as if you’re smiling, and try again.
- To adjust the pitch, slide your tongue behind your upper front teeth. This will force the air out faster and raise the pitch. Loosening your lips will lower the pitch.
- For variation, slide your hand along the shell aperture or jut it in and out to slow or accelerate or punctuate the sound.
Remember, when you blow the conch, you are connecting to the Great Mother Ocean and all her power!