Instruments From Ancient Mexico – The Conch Shell Trumpet

conch shell trumpetA conch shell is a beautiful thing.

But who would guess that cultures all around the world would not only admire it’s beauty but also figure out that – with a few minor modifications – it becomes a completely functional, natural trumpet!  Among others, there are conch trumpets heard in music from the South Pacific, Tibet, Korea and pre-Incan cultures.  Archeological finds and older documents also place it in Aztec culture and ceremonies as well.  Here’s a bit more about the Aztec conch shell trumpet.

aztec conch trumpetPictured here is a musician called a “quiquizoani” playing the conch shell.  The name is in the Nahuatl Indigenous language of Mexico and this specific image can be found on page 23 of the Aztec Codex “Magliabecchi”, currently preserved and archived at the University of Utah in the United States.

One of the best sites for information on Aztec instruments, including great pictures from archeological sites and historical references is (see resources below).  Their research shows that there were 7 different types of conch shells and that the largest was called the ‘quiquiztli’.  As you might imagine, the shell trumpet was highly symbolic and associated with the breath of life as well as the rhythms of the sea.  Similarly, it was associated with the call to prayer, marking time during the day and during the night, the moon, fertility and Ehécatl – the Aztec God of the Wind.

Research also shows that conch shell trumpets were used by the Aztec military in a manner similar to modern day bugles.

Conch Shells in The USA

Closer to home, conch shells are part of a unique contest in the Florida Keys.  Although the tradition of blowing the conch trumpet dates back over 200 years, it was originally used mainly for maritime signaling. Recently, however, the contest is a lot more colorful with contestants that vary in age from 3 – 83 and even perform with unique outfits, hula hoops and other novelty approaches.

Want to find out more about this modern conch contest?  Check out the link below for some amazing variations on this ancient musical theme

What Does A Conch Trumpet Sound Like?

Check out this short video where a young buy demonstrates how to cut the conch shell and how to practice getting the trumpet sound.


MexicoLore’s Conch Shell Page

Florida Keys Newsroom – Info On The Annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest

Feliz Navidad… and a Merry Christmas, Puerto Rican Style!

Puerto rico bongosGenerations of music fans have learned to say Merry Christmas in Spanish from this popular holiday song.  Written by Jose Feliciano, a singer, songwriter and virtuoso guitarist from Puerto Rico, this happy little song is perfect for teaching easy phrases in Spanish or for just adding to your family’s soundtrack of Christmas fun.

The lyrics are simple.  The first verse is in Spanish:

Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad,
Feliz Navidad, Prospero año y felicidad . . .
Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad,
Feliz Navidad, Prospero año y felicidad . . .

And the second verse is in English:

I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas
I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas
I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas
From the bottom of my heart

And, although “Feliz Navidad” is loved all around the world, you can use the song to learn more about music and holiday traditions from other lands, such as Puerto Rico.

guiro iconDid you know that there are musical groups that go door to door serenading during six weeks of Christmas festivities in Puerto Rico?  Called “parrandas”, “asaltos” or “trullas”, these music groups go from home to home and play bright, upbeat songs, with the same instruments you hear in the version of Feliz Navidad below – guitars, bongo drums and a percussion instrument called a guiro.

Music is important all aspects of the extended holiday celebration in Puerto Rico and the Christmas tree is decorated to symbolize the musical groups as well as the Magi or Three Kings.  For many, the Christmas season begins after Thanksgiving and ends in early January.  During that time you may often get a visit from a band of musicians who will celebrate the season with you and stop to eat and drink at your house as they travel on their way.

Want to learn more about Christmas in Puerto Rico?  Check out the great links below.  Or have fun with your own version of the holiday, wherever you are.  Color a festive guitar.  Make your own guiro!

Or wish someone you love a “Feliz Navidad!”

Links And Activities

Puerto Rican Christmas Traditions from El Boricua

Folklore and Christmas Traditions From “Welcome To Puerto Rico”

guitar coloring pageGuitar Coloring Page

Click to access Guitar%20Coloring%20Page.pdf

Hear a Guiro

Color A Guiro Online

Make Your Own Guiro from Recycled Materials

Feliz Navidad Lyric Sheet Print Out

DARIA’s Feliz Navidad on I tunes

DARIA’s Feliz Navidad Amazon mp3

Homemade Steel Drum Fun!

Have you ever heard a steel drum? The sound is amazing. Steel drums can create beautiful melodies with a hint of metallic sound. Since these unique instruments originated in the Caribbean, most people associate their sound with the beautiful islands from this part of the world. And although finely crafted professional steel drums can cost in the hundreds or even thousand of dollars, it isn’t hard to create the same kind of musical exploration at home by making a homemade version of a steel pan. It just takes some of the same creativity that was used when steel drums were first invented.

About Steel Drums

Steel drums (or steelpan drums) originated on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago with the people from West Africa who had been brought there as slaves. These people wanted to celebrate their customs and holidays as they had in Africa but the French slave owners banned most of their traditional percussion and holiday customs. Year after year, the enslaved people came up with new versions of their percussion ensembles and traditional dances, but found that the slave owners banned them. Finally, the holiday celebration reorganized with music created on an orchestra of frying pans, trash can lids and steel drums and this was allowed. Later these basic but functional everyday items were refined into the amazing instruments that we might recognize today. Now, steel drums of various sizes and shapes are often played in a group called a steel band or orchestra and an individual player is called a “pannist”.

Creating Your Improvised Steel Drum At Home

You’ll need two things to create a steel drum jam at home. First, a metal object that has the potential to make a variety of sounds. And, second, a mallet to play the improvised drum.

Three great choices for the drum itself are metal trash can lid, a hubcap or an overturned metal cupcake tray. For your mallet (the stick that will strike the drum) you can use an unsharpened pencil, a stick, a recycled chopstick or a wooden dowel. But if you look closely at any steel drum player, you’ll notice one thing about their mallets. They are not simply sticks hitting metal. Instead they are sticks with a rubber or soft fabric “head” that helps create a more pleasing sound when the metal object is played.

Make Your Own Mallet

To make your own mallet, start with your unsharpened pencil, a chopstick or dowel. Then you have several choices. You can wrap the end or ends of the stick with rubber bands or electrical tape. You can also use electrical tape to secure a rubber eraser to a pencil. For the softest sound, you can tape a group of Q-tips to a stick and you’ll be rewarded with a really subtle tone that sounds almost like an authentic steel drum.

If you make several mallets, you’ll notice how each one produces a different kind of sound when playing your drum.

Play Your Steel Drum

Once you have your drum and your mallets, let your child explore the sounds that it can make. I often challenge kids and adults to find how many different sounds their metal object can create. And the results have been surprising as people have come up with new and innovative ways of discovering what their improvised instrument can do. For the basics, you can easily tap at different areas of the surface, hit the handle of the trash can lid, hit the side of the lid, tap the surface of the cupcake tins and play a “trill” by

Keywords, running your mallets over the open areas of the hubcap. You can play louder or softer for slightly different tones and you can exchange mallets to see what is most pleasing to your ear.

Since most rhythms are made of patterns, you can start putting together the sounds that you like. With a trash can lid, a rhythm might be something like this:

Surface, surface, handle
Surface, surface, handle
Surface, surface, handle
Surface, surface, rim!

Let your child mix and match sounds and make up patterns that fit their favorite songs or just jam. Slowly they’ll start to get their own idea of how to make the instrument play what they want to hear.

Some Playing Tips

If working with trash can lids or hubcaps, it can help to put them on top of a plastic bucket, a small pot or a colander. The lid or hubcap will ring out more and will sit at a better height for most children to reach. If working with cupcake tins, turn them over and fill a few with different amounts of paper towel. Then each “cup” will ring out with a slightly different tone in the same way that different areas on a real steel drum will produce different tones.

Play Along With A Song

Check out my limbo song and video here. I was able to work with an awesome steel drum player when recording the song, so it can be fun to play along with this tune and add your own parts as well.

If you want to hear authentic steel pan orchestras, check out the cd section of the Steel Drum Shop website below and explore their selection of dynamic players and groups that have created and evolved this type of traditional music.

The Steel Drum Store – Steel Drum CD’s

Discover A World Of Music

Exploring the steel drum can be a great way to learn about geography and history as well as arts and culture. Where are Trinidad and Tobago? Who were the slaves brought to these islands? What traditions did they bring from their homeland? What other music evolved in this area? What are these countries like today?

You can check out the sites below to find out more about these islands and their many wonderful contributions to music and world culture.

Trinidad and Tobago – Travel and Tourism site

US State Government Guide to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago

Singing About The Twelve Days Of Christmas in St. Croix

A few days ago, I got a copy of the most wonderful song written by Miss Barb’s students at the AZ Academy on the island of St. Croix. They decided to make their own version of the traditional carol – the Twelve Days of Christmas –  but add details that were special to their island and their celebration. It’s a great song, very funny and very singable! Especially the ….. FIVE CENTIPEDES!

Miss Barb tells us a bit more about Christmas in St. Criox: “All of these verses refer to St. Croix traditions and history. They also make Johnny Cakes. They were originally called Journey cakes…made to eat while they traveled. They are delicious! They start celebrating in December and the celebration ends with Three Kings Day in January. They also have an Adult Parade and Children’s Parade.”

And, in case you wondered, the Mocko Jumbie from verse 3 is a colorful stilt walker and dancer seen at special celebrations. What fun!

A Mocko Jumbie in St. Croix

On The Twelve Days of Christmas – Crucian Style
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
An iguana in a Mango treee.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
2 forts with cannons etc.
On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
3 mocko jumbies etc.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
4 frogs a singing etc.
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
5 centipedes etc.
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
6 cruise ships coming etc.
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
7 roosters crowing etc
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
8 geckos climbing etc.
On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
9 lobsters swimming etc
On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
10 Crucians speaking etc
On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
11 children dancing etc.
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
12 steel pans drumming etc.

Special thanks to teacher, Barbara McVicker, for sharing this song and also the idea that the students made drawings of different parts of the song. What a great way to dive into music and mix in history, culture and celebration at the same time.

A happy island holiday to all in St. Croix – especially the bright and creative students of AZ Academy!