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HomeNewsLocal newsStudents Learn to Make, Play Traditional Conch Horns

Students Learn to Make, Play Traditional Conch Horns

Students from Arthur Richards Middle School learn to make horns from conch shells. (Photos submitted by Opal Palmer Adisa.)About 15 students from Arthur Richards Middle School in Frederiksted got a hands on demonstration Thursday from Brian Bishop of Crucian Gold, on how to convert a conch shell into a horn.

Organized by members of the St Croix Sea Shell Society, which has an extensive sea-shell exhibit at Fort Frederik, students gathered in the courtyard for the demonstration.

When students arrived for the workshop they found were several of Bishop’s tutus – or conch horns – as well as the necessary tools required to get the job done, displayed on two tables. The youngsters were equipped with safety glasses and breathing masks.

Bishop began by informing students that the conch season is from October through May; that the law requires that shells are at least nine inches and an individual is allowed six conchs per day without a license. Bishop told students that he dives his own conch, selecting only the biggest and best shells.

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Most importantly, he emphasized, care must be taken to extract the conch from the shell. A machete or other blunt tool should not be used, as it will leave a big gash rendering the shell useless for a musical instrument.

Cutting an embouchure at the tip of the conch. Conch, eaten widely locally, and prepared in a variety of dishes, is sold commonly on many main roads. However, many do not realize that the shell ostensibly is more valuable than conch meat, and has been used as a horn from the days of enslavement. Known locally as a tutu, the shell horn was the main device enslaved Africans used to announce gatherings and as a call to action to plan rebellions against their oppression.

Today all over St Croix, fishermen blow the tutu to announce to potential buyers that they are approaching shore with a load of fish, and fishermen and sailors blow the tutu on the high seas to salute each other. Tutu is also blown to open many cultural events in St Croix and the greater Virgin Islands.

The tutu is made after the conch is removed, then a mouth piece – or embouchure – is carefully fashioned by sawing off about one inch to one and a quarter inches of the tip with an abrasive saw. Either a power or hand saw can be used. If more is cut off, the hole will be too large for a horn, Bishop told the students.

Next, Bishop demonstrated how to remove the interior spiral section inside the hole with a hammer and punch.

The next step was smoothing the opening with sandpaper to avoid rough edges that could cut the lips.

Embouchure size varies, depending on the size of the shell. Larger shells tend to feature a large embouchure, much like a trombone, and the smaller like a cornet or trumpet.

After sanding, the back of the shell is cleaned by thoroughly scrubbed it using a wire brush. If the edge of the shell is jagged, that also must be sanded smooth.

To maintain the luster of your horn, Bishop recommended applying sunscreen with a high SPF factor to the shell to prevent it from fading and to enhance the smell. Baby or mineral oil can be used instead and is just as effective, he added.

Bishop and his students blow an anthusiastic call on their tutus.Students were eager to blow the tutus they created and Bishop gave them some pointers about pursing the lips. Blowing a tutu is similar to blowing a trumpet. One can achieve different notes by placing the hand inside the chamber of the shell at various spots, as well as using the finger to plug the small hole that was inserted to extract the conch meat. Tightening or loosing your lip will achieve different notes, also.

Bishop also recommended that when the shell is not being used it should be kept out of direct sunlight to preserve the color and to prevent chipping and for longevity. The tutu should be stored in box, plastic kitchen container, or fabric bag.

The students loud playing of the tutus brought in a crowd of visitors, one of whom eagerly purchased a tutu. It was evident from the active and enthusiastic participation of all the students that this workshop was not only effective and practical but very enjoyable as well, and imparted important skills to students while reinforcing an important aspect of Crucian culture.

Bishop has been making tutus for more than 30 years. About 25 years ago he made 30 horns for a conch-shell orchestra entitled, Arkestra.

Elizabeth Robb, a musician and member of the Sea Shell Society, is interested in reviving such a group for young Crucians to promote the culture and keep the importance of these horns alive. Bishop said he would teach and help in the making of tutu horns for such a group.

Opal Palmer Adisa is an internationally acclaimed poet, writer and storyteller. From 2009 to 2011 she was editor of The Caribbean Writer, the University of the Virgin Islands literary magazine, and is a respected lecturer and visiting professor at schools around the world.

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