Monday Commentary
2:26 pm
Wed July 12, 2006

Music of the Seas - the Cape Fear Conch Band

Island music is a staple of summer concerts around here, but one local band is taking more than their inspiration from the ocean; it's also the source of their instruments. WHQR's Megan Williams has more.

Wrightsville Beach, NC – For possibly thousands of years, the bellowing blast of the conch shell has traveled across warm ocean waters around the world, opening religious ceremonies and signaling fishermen returning home with their catch.

On a recent evening at Seapath marina in Wrightsville Beach, the conch shell was singing a new tune 'Popeye the Sailor Man.'

Clustered around music stands in the marina's clubhouse, the dozen people with their lips to these shells are part of a unique musical ensemble, the Cape Fear Conch Band. The group works on the same concept as a bell choir.

Bandleader Nel Nichols explains most shells give a single, consistent note, although they can be harder or easier or easier to blow, depending on the player. Nature hasn't made the perfect instrument, though; conchs only span a range of about one and a half octaves. Which Nichols says makes her job difficult.

"So you're constantly trying to create interesting good sound that's based on this many notes," she says. "You don't have a bass section pinning everything down, and when your melody takes off, sometimes you just have to shift it down into the lower octave for the notes you have."

The Cape Fear Conch Band is an outgrowth of the Cape Fear Power Squadron, a local chapter of the national boating safety organization. This weekend, North Carolina's 20 Power Squad chapters are meeting up for their summer Rendezvous. The band actually got its start during these annual meetings.

As band member Jerry Hall remembers it, "somebody in the '70s or early '80s started a conch-blowing contest and we got involved in that and it just sort of evolved since then. We're just sort of, as you say, trying to push the envelope in terms of conch blowing."

Hall himself has won a lot of those contests over the years, including the category of 'most melodic.' The crowd laughed at first when he claimed he could play classical music on a single shell. But with a large triton shell in hand, Hall managed several bars of Ode to Joy.

The shell that conquered Beethoven spent its first two decades as a doorstop in Hall's house, before, in search of a shell that could handle the lowest notes, he cut the end off and gave it a try. That's what these shells normally are: souvenirs from beachside stands, keepsakes of tropical vacations. So when members got the idea for a band, it wasn't like they could just order up a full scale of conch shells from somewhere. This is a real do-it-yourself instrument.

Founding member Genie Lancaster started her search for musical conchs at the 10 Mile Post souvenir store on Carolina Beach Road. "They had a million of them," she recalls, "and we were just sitting there playing them. And we had the pitch pipe and I would play and my husband would blow the pitch pipe and we'd get the notes that we thought we needed and that's how we came up with the first one."

Even with a full complement of notes, the band doesn't always have enough players, which can be unfortunate; even the best blowers only get their notes out 80 or 90% of the time. Without enough people doubling up on parts, things can get a little... asthmatic.

The ambidextrously inclined sometimes try to help out by taking a shell in each hand and playing two parts. But bandleader Nichols explains that has its own dangers, too; it can be a dangerously easy for players to lose their grip on the bulky shells. "We've actually had some accidents with conchs a-flyin'," Nichols admits.

Despite their musical unreliability, their humble origins, and, apparently, their occasional hazards? Nichols says there's a simple pleasure to the conch shell. "When you play it and blow into it," she says, "you feel good. Just like the experience of singing your endorphins, everything just starts to flow."

Maybe that's why it's lasted so long... Or maybe it's just fun to make so much noise, in such a surprising way.

Megan Williams, WHQR News

You can find out more about the Cape Fear Power Squadron, and the Cape Fear Conch Band, at their website, www.capefearpowersquadron.org.