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Canadian Alliszon Zaichkowski toots her conch shell during the annual Key West Conch Shell Blowing Contest Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Key West, Fla.

Rob O'Neal/Florida Keys News Bureau

In William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, the conch shell represents civilization, order and rational thought. But in Key West, a boozy Florida outpost and a refuge for renegades, the hollow spiral shell is just one more way to make noise. It took a melodious Canadian sailor to change that perception.

Earlier this month, Victoria’s Allison Zaichkowski blew the locals’ minds when she took top honours in the Hemingway-happy party-town’s annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest. Traditionally, entrants are judged on the quality, duration, loudness and novelty of the sound they produce by tooting through a shell that is produced in the ocean by a mollusk’s chalky secretions. Musical ability is not a requirement; for most contestants, it isn’t even an afterthought.

So, when Zaichkowski used her conch shell to excerpt The Firebird by Stravinsky, to play the melody to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and to replicate the stoic French horn solo in Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, it was a revelation and a genuine cause for what the natives call, without any shame at all, a “shellibration.”

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“When I was done playing, one of the contest organizers told me not to go anywhere, because they wanted to have me interviewed for TV,” said Zaichkowski, a French horn player with the Naden Band of the Royal Canadian Navy and a Petty Officer, 2nd Class. “They said they’d never heard anything like what I was doing.”

On 1970′s After the Gold Rush, a lament to Mother Nature, Young sang poignantly, "There was a fanfare blowing to the sun.” In Key West, a small city of some 25,000 free spirits who call their home Conch Republic as a tongue-in-cheek nod to a whimsical secession from the United States, Zaichkowski did the gentle composition justice and took home the women’s division ribbon to boot.

She spoke to The Globe and Mail from Esquimalt, B.C., home base to the Naden Band, one of six regular military bands of the Canadian forces. She had first heard of the conch-blowing contest a decade ago, but hadn’t had the time to fly across the continent until this spring. Although she thought she had a fair chance of winning the competition, she made the trip to America’s southernmost outpost in the name of a snail-shell altruism.

“I looked at it as an opportunity to show an audience exactly what you could do musically with a conch,” Zaichkowski explained. “I tried to put everything I could into five minutes.”

With a conch tattoo on her left bicep, Zaichkowski wears her love of the so-called “shell trumpet” on her sleeve. She took a suitcase of shells to Key West. The size and shape of the polished shells affect the tone and musical key. She uses four conches alone for Bohemian Rhapsody, although her contest-winning version was truncated owing to time constraints.

Zaichkowski expects to defend her title next year. But how can she outdo herself? “It’s true, I did play all my greatest hits,” she said. “But I’m working on a new song list. It’ll be a surprise.”

Know of an unsung arts and culture hero who deserves wider acclaim? Send suggestions to bwheeler@globeandmail.com.

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