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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Jan 2017/13 Monkey
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Blow your own trumpet!

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Aztec musicians were named after the instruments they played - a conch player was a quiquizoani - this shows us how keen they were on music: you weren’t just a ‘blower’, you were a special SHELL TRUMPET PLAYER!
The conch was ancient and was a symbol of the Wind God (look for it here on his chest!). It also had links with the sea, with the call to prayer, with the underworld, with the moon, with fertility... Its deep haunting sound harked back to the first blast in the underworld that announced the creation of humankind...
The conch trumpet was a timekeeping and announcing instrument, blown regularly four times during the day and five times during the night; here you can see it being blown at the front of a procession. Make way...!
Conch shell horns were also part of military equipment: blown perhaps in a similar way to modern (brass) bugles, as calls for battle to begin when the Aztec army went off to fight.
Offerings to the god of rain, Tlaloc, found recently buried under Mexico City, often contained objects linked to music. Can you spot several conch shells in this offering?
emoticon One of the first things the enemy did in a battle was to try and silence the Aztec conch blower in battle - they didn’t have to kill him, just to try and leave him un-CONCH-ous!

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Aztec conch player, Codex Magliabecchiano

The conch trumpet

Aztec musicians were named for the instruments they played - a shell trumpet blower was a ‘quiquizoani’ - and this gives us some idea of how specialised and highly developed musical practice was. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Drawing by Miguel Covarrubias of Quetzalcóatl from the Codex Borbonicus; note the shell hanging from his chest!
Pic 1: Drawing by Miguel Covarrubias of Quetzalcóatl from the Codex Borbonicus; note the shell hanging from his chest! (Click on image to enlarge)

There were 7 different kinds of conch, the largest of which were called ‘quiquiztli’. The instrument had sacred and ancient associations - with the sea, with the call to prayer, with the underworld, with the moon, with fertility, with the wind god Ehécatl, who had the power to blow life into a void, just as the blower blows life into an object (the conch) that would otherwise remain ‘lifeless’ for ever. Its haunting sound harked back to ‘the primordial blast of the world produced in the underworld by Quetzalcóatl heralding the creation of humankind’ (Patrick Johansson).

Pic 2: Conch trumpeters carved on the west side of Temple 1, Las Higueras, Central Veracruz; Xalapa Museum
Pic 2: Conch trumpeters carved on the west side of Temple 1, Las Higueras, Central Veracruz; Xalapa Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

The conch trumpet was a timekeeping and announcing instrument, blown regularly four times during the day and five times during the night***; it can be seen clearly being played at the front of a procession in the main image (top), from the Codex Magliabecchiano (note, by the way, that we can tell the sounds were deep thanks to the dark grey sound marks shown coming from the conch!)

Pic 3: Shell instruments in amongst other offering artefacts, Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 3: Shell instruments in amongst other offering artefacts, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Conch shell horns were also part of military equipment: blown perhaps in a similar fashion to more modern (brass) bugles as calls for battle to begin when the Aztec army engaged in actual combat.

The 47th annual conch blowing contest, Key West, Florida
The 47th annual conch blowing contest, Key West, Florida

Offerings to the god of rain, Tlaloc, discovered in recent years at the Templo Mayor site in Mexico City, often contained ‘symbolic references to music, fertility and plants’ (Eduardo Matos Moctezuma), including several conch shells. Can you spot them in Picture 3?

Conch blowing has quite a pedigree even today: in Florida, where the art is ‘deeply entwined in Key West’s heritage and tradition’, there is an annual contest, during which ‘entrants are judged on the quality, duration and loudness, and novelty of the sound they produce...’

Conch players Steve Turre (US) and Tommy Adolfsson (Sweden)
Conch players Steve Turre (US) and Tommy Adolfsson (Sweden) (Click on image to enlarge)

Internationally, professional musicians have taken up the conch and developed it as a creative solo and ensemble instrument. Listen to evocative conch sounds as recorded by Steve Turre and Tommy Adolfsson (follow links below).

Part of a ritual offering, Templo Mayor Museum
Part of a ritual offering, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

If you visit the website of the International Study Group on Music Archaeology (’Now listen...’, below) you can hear a VERY atmospheric recording of actual Aztec instruments (shell trumpet, ceramic tubular trumpet and flutes) found at the Templo Mayor site, and played by our friend Arnd Adje Both and the group Tribu... (NOTE: ISGMA have moved some of these recordings, but at least one conch recording is still on the site...)

*** In fact, the Florentine Codex - the source of this long established ‘fact’ - is ambiguous on this point. The relevant section in Book 2, though titled ‘A DECLARATION OF HOW THE SUN WAS SERVED, AND OF HOW MANY TIMES TRUMPETS WERE BLOWN DURING THE DAY AND DURING THE NIGHT, AND OF HOW MANY TIMES INCENSE WAS OFFERED’, in fact specifically only refers to the latter -
And thus was incense offered: it was four times during the day and it was five times during the night...

Picture sources:-
• Procession (Codex Magliabecchiano) scanned from our facsimile edition published by ADEVA, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Drawing of Quetzalcóatl by Miguel Covarrubias scanned from Alfonso Caso’s book ‘The Aztecs: People of the Sun’ (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1958)
• Photos from the Museum of Xalapa and Templo Mayor Museum by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Conch blowing contest image taken from the Old Island Restoration Foundation website (link below)

‘Occasionally even experts make mistakes!’

Steve Turre

Tommy Adolfsson

‘How to Blow a Conch Shell’

Now listen to the real thing...!

Watch Steve Turre give a virtuoso performance on the conch...

‘Quiquiztli: The Conch Shell Trumpet’ (from the Tlacatecco blog)

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