KEY WEST, Fla. — It’s not a stringed instrument, a percussion instrument or the musical choice of virtually any “American Idol” contestant. Nonetheless, the conch shell takes center stage in Key West’s music scene each spring, when several dozen hopefuls vie for victory in the annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest.
Set for noon Saturday, March 7, the 58th annual “conch honk” is to be held in the garden of the Oldest House Museum, 322 Duval St., and celebrates Key West’s historic conch connection. The competition typically draws a standing-room-only audience to applaud the often hilarious efforts of entrants.
Blowing into the fluted pink-lined shells of the hardy sea mollusk is a centuries-old Key West tradition. Conch “horns” were employed as signaling devices by early Native Americans, 19th-century seafarers and resident shipwreck salvagers among others.
Today the conch shell remains an enduring symbol of the Florida Keys and Key West. Native-born citizens proudly call themselves “conchs” and the island chain is nicknamed the Conch Republic.
During the quirky contest, participants ranging from young children to seniors and groups compete to coax the most impressive sounds from their “instruments.” Luckily, judges aren’t seeking true musical talent; instead they select winners based on the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds produced.
While most entrants can only manage tuneless hoots or halfhearted squawks, a few do surprise spectators by blowing lengthy blasts or even song fragments. In the 2019 competition, David Masterson earned top honors in the men’s division by playing excerpts from a classical melody and the 1958 hit “Tequila” on his shell.
The offbeat test of pucker power is presented each spring by the Old Island Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit organization now in its 60th year of preserving the architectural and cultural heritage of Key West.
The 2020 contest is free to enter and watch. Registration takes place before the event in the garden at the Oldest House and those without “instruments” can purchase conch shells on-site.
Event information: oirf.org or 305-294-9501