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A Conch Used as a Trumpet

Conches are large sea snails.  True conches are from the family Strombidae, but there are a number of other large marine snails which are also colloquially called conches including horse conches (Fasciolariidae), crown conches (Melongenidae), and the “sacred chank” (a member of the Turbinellidae family).  These powerful marine snails are fascinating organisms in their own right—but today’s post is not about biology, rather it concerns music. When properly prepared, conches can be made into lovely and powerful wind instruments. Such shell trumpets have been found in use by cultures from around the world and specimens have been found dating back to the Neolithic era (although the musical use of shells might predate even that).

3000 year old Strombus galeatus shell modified as a musical instrument by pre-Inca people of Peru

Different cultures obviously use different shells for their trumpets and the instruments also serve varying purposes.  The magnificent big pink queen conch (Lobatus gigas) from the Caribbean was used as a trumpet by the Carib, the Arawak and Taíno peoples.  In India, the shell of the big predatory sea snail, Turbinella pyrum has long been crafted into the shankha, a religious musical instrument emblematic of the Hindu preserver god Vishnu (who last appeared in Ferrebeekeeper slaying the demon of Lake Lonar).  The shankha (also known as the sacred chank in English) can be intricately carved.  Though initially used as a charm to ward off the dangers of ocean travel, it long ago came to be associated with Vishnu worship and with nagas—water serpent deities.  Buddhists from the subcontinent also esteem the same instrument  as one of the eight auspicious symbols of that faith.  The Tibetan Buddhists call such a trumpet a “Tung.”

Vamavarta shankhas, c. 11-12th century

The Triton shell, Charonia tritonis, is used as a wind instrument throughout its Pacific range.  In Polynesia the instrument is called a “pu” whereas in Japan the horn is known as the horagai.  Likewise the Triton’s shell is a military instrument in traditional Korean music (where it is known as a nagak).

A Korean Bugler plays a Nagak

The cultures of the Mediterranean also made extensive use of conch-horns as foghorns and signaling devices and it is through Greek art and literature that conch horns made their way into mainstream Western art of the last two millennia.

Triton blowing on a Conch from the Bailey Fountain in Brooklyn

There seem to be two major ways of crafting a wind instrument from a large gastropod– both of which essentially involve creating an aperture in the whorl of a large gastropod shell. Mitchell Clark summarizes them with admirable clarity in his excellent article about shell-trumpets writing:

 There are two basic places this hole may be placed, and so there are two basic approaches that can be taken for making a conch shell into a shell trumpet. A hole is made either at the apex (the tip of the spire) of the shell, or, alternatively, in one of the whorls to the side of the spire…. In some cases the hole itself forms the mouth hole; in others, a mouthpiece is added.

The sound of such a trumpet is a rich rumbling primal roar—but it is usually only one note in one key.  Although pitch can be modified with finger holes or embouchure, such an approach is unusual.  But enough talk about shell trumpets!  Below is a Youtube video of a um…contest-winner playing one.

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