For Michael Cox, it was all about his dad. Nearly 30 years ago Michael’s father, James “Whistle” Cox, took first place in Key West’s annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest — a beloved annual event nicknamed the “Conch Honk.”
And though Michael lives in Colorado, quite a distance from Key West, he was determined to enter the 2014 contest and follow in his father’s footsteps.
“In 1986 my father was about the same age that I am today, so it was on my bucket list to come to Key West and do my duty and reclaim the family trophy,” Michael said.
On March 1, he did just that — winning the contest while playing the same shell his father had used to win in 1986.
This is not just any run-of-the-mill challenge. Now in its 52nd year, the quirky event draws dozens of contestants each year who are eager to share in a Key West tradition: testing their “pucker power” by trying to make music using the fluted, pink-lined conch shell.
Since the conch shell is not easy to play, some entrants only manage weird splutters or hoots — though some with hardy lungs can produce amazingly long, vigorous blasts.
Michael, however, refused to settle for a halfhearted attempt. He won the men’s division title by blowing a melodic two-toned blast that lasted about 30 seconds on his father’s shell — followed by part of the 1935 George Gershwin classic “Summertime” on a smaller shell.
“I realized that, to win this competition, I was going to need to learn how to play a song. So I practiced every night in my basement,” said Michael, who admitted that he spent two years preparing for the contest.
His father gave him a trumpet when he was a kid, and he learned how to buzz his lips and play it. Later he learned a technique called “circular breathing” — but despite those skills, Michael believes the shell itself contributed to his success.
“This was my father’s shell, so I knew that was going to give me a leg up,” he explained after his victory. “It’s already won one competition, and now I’m so happy it’s won another.”
Conch shell blowing, by the way, has been practiced in the Florida Keys for generations. Early settlers blew blasts to signal that a sinking ship had been spotted offshore, and native-born islanders are commonly called Conchs. The shell of the sturdy sea mollusk is a symbol of the island chain, which is also known as the Conch Republic.
The 2014 Conch Shell Blowing Contest attracted hopeful conch “honkers” ranging from toddlers to people in their late 70s. The youngest was three-year-old Frank Umlauf, whose family was taking a subtropical break from Brooklyn and heard about the competition. Though he had never “honked a conch” before, Frank issued a praiseworthy blast while watched by his proud mom Cindy, dad Taylor and little brother Leo.
A panel of dedicated judges gave each entrant the serious consideration he or she deserved (okay, maybe the consideration wasn’t exactly serious).
Contestants were judged on the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sounds they made.
Some sounds were novel indeed, but two intrepid entrants managed to warble recognizable excerpts from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
Trust me, that’s tough to play on ANY instrument — let alone a conch shell.
FYI, it’s not just individuals who can enter. Among the highlights of the 2014 contest was a hilarious performance by the Boca Chica Conchestra. Composed of more than two dozen people, the offbeat ensemble presented a wacky conch-shell-and-dance takeoff on the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” — complete with costumes and letter-forming arm gestures.
It was (wait for it!) a total hoot.