Blowing Your Own Horn
March 4, 2004
Every day just around dusk in George Town, Bahamas, the evening tranquillity is pierced by the mournful wail of dozens of horns. It's not an air raid alert, nor a Scottish marching band gone berserk. No, it's a bunch of cruisers with conch shell horns announcing the setting of the sun. Since each participant has his or her personal view of precisely when the sun set, the cacophony usually lasts several minutes. This is a helpful service for those of us who would otherwise not know why it's getting dark outside.
Some sources suggest this twilight ritual originated with the indigenous tribes who first settled in the Bahamas. We haven't been able to verify this assertion since those Lucayan natives have been extinct for nearly five hundred years. We've never seen a Bahamian wielding a conch horn, but it seems just about every seasoned George Town cruiser is packing one or two. Not surprising, a conch horn blowing competition is the key event at the opening night festivities for the annual George Town cruising regatta; the 2004 regatta opens this Saturday. Prizes will be awarded for the longest continuous blow, the loudest blow, and the best kid's blow. Our eardrums are quivering with anticipation.
With all the excitement generated by the coming contest, a conch horn making workshop was held this past Tuesday under the casuarina trees on Volleyball Beach. It turned out that we weren't the only hornless cruisers in the harbour; over twenty people showed up hoping to transform their conch shells into prize-winning instruments. Our instructor was Mike Davidson on the trawler "Callaway". We first met Mike and his wife Pat in 1997 in the Bay Islands of Honduras when they owned the sailboat "Impulse". They're experienced cruisers and experienced conch horn blowers. Mike blew his first conch horn in the Bahamas in 1989.
To make a conch horn you need a conch shell (preferably minus it's original inhabitant); a hacksaw; a punch or drill; and a file and coarse grit sandpaper. The first step is the hardest: saw off the tip of the shell. A conch is one helluva tough gastropod; make sure you have a sharp blade on your hacksaw. You want to end up with a dime sized hole at the small end of the shell, so cut accordingly. Unfortunately, it's not obvious what distance back from the tip will yield the required orifice. According to Mike, "Every conch builds his house differently, so it's sort of trial by error. If you don't cut off enough of the tip, you can always cut off more, but if you cut off too much, you won't be able to put it back on again."
Once you've cut the tip off, you'll see that the internal passage is obstructed by the shell's inside spiral structure. You have to open up the passage by using either a hammer and punch or a drill. Don't get too carried away; air flow should still be restricted (think of a tuba, which is basically a coiled tube, small at one end and big at the other). Now comes the delicate part. Take a file and sandpaper to the outer end of the hole to create a smooth, thin lip.
Mike demonstrates proper conch horn blowing technique
At this point, your conch horn is ready to blow. If your conch shell wasn't vacated voluntarily, it probably has a slit cut in it the fourth ridge back from the tip (see our April 24, 2002 entry, "How To Clean A Conch"). You can temporarily block this hole with your finger, but eventually you'll want to close it off with filler such as bondo or thickened epoxy. Mike claims that the size of the shell doesn't have all that much bearing on its tone or volume. How it was modified and the lung capacity of its operator seem to be more important factors. As with all wind instruments, the way you purse your lips will affect the pitch of your horn; it might take a bit of practice before you're mistaken for Wynton Marsalis.
But at least for now you're ready to greet the sunset. Your immediate neighbours will love you.