Feb 13, 2024
While other locales might be famous for jazz or blues, Key West is home to its own musical art form: conch shell blowing. Aspiring “musicians” can test their skill on the shell beginning at noon Saturday, March 9, during the 61st annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest in the garden of the Oldest House Museum, 322 Duval St.
The contest salutes the Florida Keys’ seafaring heritage and centuries-old use of the fluted, pink-lined shells for signaling and communication. In the 1800s, when the local economy was largely based on salvaging shipwreck cargoes, sailors attracted attention by blowing piercing blasts on the “conch horn.”
The Keys’ connection with conch goes far beyond instrumental and signaling uses. The slightly tough meat of the hardy mollusk is the prime ingredient in conch chowder, conch fritters and other local dishes. Keys natives proudly proclaim their own tough, hardy nature by calling themselves “conchs” and their home the Conch Republic. The shell remains an enduring symbol of the island chain.
The Conch Shell Blowing Contest has demonstrated the strength of the Keys’ conch connection for six decades. The annual competition is presented by the Old Island Restoration Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the architectural and cultural heritage of Key West.
The quirky “Conch Honk” typically attracts several dozen men, women, children and even groups to compete. As well as showing off their lung and pucker power before a standing-room-only audience, they honor the Keys’ colorful past.
While most entrants in the anything-goes competition only manage blasts or squawks, each year a few produce complex melodies that impress judges and spectators alike. Winners are chosen for the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds they make, with trophies awarded in multiple age categories.
The festivities generally feature performances by talented “pucker pros.” Contest organizers advise that 2023 men’s division winner Brian Cardis, a pediatric cardiologist from Georgia, plans to return to defend his title. Other attractions are to include a training station for aspiring young “conch honkers” and candy making by the Candy Girls of Bahama Village.
The 2024 contest is free to enter and watch, and gates open at 10:30 a.m. Contestants can enter online at oirf.org, or in person at the Oldest House Museum before the contest until 11:45 a.m.
Event information: oirf.org or 305-294-9501