Clarence Clemons they’re not.
In fact, if Bruce Springsteen’s late legendary saxophone player could observe the contestants in Key West’s renowned Conch Shell Blowing Contest, he certainly wouldn’t encourage any of them to audition for the E Street Band.
However, while their musical talents might not spark Clemons’ admiration, it’s a pretty good bet their enthusiasm and spirit would.
Conch shell blowing, a time-honored tradition, is Key West’s most indigenous form of musical expression. In the 19th century, when the island city’s economy was largely based on salvaging cargoes from ships wrecked on the nearby reef, seafarers attracted attention by blowing piercing blasts through the conch’s fluted, pink-lined shell.
Actually, Key West’s connection with conch goes far beyond instrumental applications. The slightly tough meat of the hardy mollusk is the prime ingredient in conch chowder and conch fritters, two of the island’s signature dishes. And native residents proudly proclaim their tough, hardy nature by referring to themselves as “conchs.”
Every March, the strength of the conch connection is demonstrated in the quirky contest. Musical purists might argue that something whose innards can be made into chowder shouldn’t be considered a true instrument, but that doesn’t faze the several dozen men, women and children who compete every year.
Entrants’ ages vary as widely as their level of skill. From tots to octogenarians, they gather to test their “pucker power” in front of scores of spectators. Competitors sometimes even include groups that pair their shell-playing with choreographed dance moves.
In the 2020 challenge, Canadian Alliszon Zaichkowski — who turned out to be a French horn player for the Royal Canadian Navy — earned the women’s division crown.
A resident of Victoria, British Columbia, the super-talented Alliszon took the title after playing excerpts from three melodies: Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and — in salute to her homeland — “After the Gold Rush” by Canadian rocker Neil Young.
Alliszon, who traveled to Key West specifically to compete in the contest, admitted she was so passionate about the “instrument” that she even got a colorful life-size tattoo of her favorite shell inked on her arm.
The 2023 contest is scheduled for noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 4, in a setting befitting its historic inspiration: the lush garden of Key West’s Oldest House Museum at 322 Duval St. Built in 1829, the structure was once the home of mariner and salvage captain Francis Watlington — a man who undoubtedly knew a thing or two about using the conch “horn” for signaling.
Presented by the Old Island Restoration Foundation, the offbeat event features free admission for spectators and free entry for competitors.
Perhaps mercifully, the latter won’t be judged on their musical prowess. Instead, local celebrity judges are instructed to evaluate the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds they produce.
Some people consider the Conch Shell Blowing Contest to be Key West’s answer to the New Orleans Jazz Festival, while some irreverently call it the “conch honk.” Oddly enough, both assessments have their truth.
Most entrants produce only feeble bleats or unmusical squawks. A few like Alliszon, however, amaze both judges and crowds with their shell serenades. Past winners have played recognizable snippets of show tunes, iconic rock numbers and even composer Aram Khachaturian’s intricate “Sabre Dance.”
They might not be Clarence Clemons, but for a brief moment they echo his musical passion.
Want to know more about Key West’s Conch Shell Blowing Contest and its unique historic setting? Just click here.