For centuries, the many peoples of numerous island cultures, Polynesia, Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, Guam, Hawaii, seaside civilizations of the Aztec and Maya and our own Taino, Carib, Lucayan and Arawak people of the Caribbean have blown into the conch shell as a form of communication.
Guamo or botutu is translated to "shell trumpet" in the Taino language. The guamo could be heard for long distances in the islands and had an important function in the community. Announcements would be delivered by a messenger whose specific task it was to know how to use the guamo properly in order to relay messages correctly. These messengers would blow the guamo from peak to peak of mountaintops, from hill to valley, from ocean to shore or vice versa, a form of communication that had been devised long before by the ancestors. Different sounds meant different things, different pitches were used, short blasts or long, constant or repetitive sounds, and each sound had a meaning that all people understood.
Guamos were always blown to the four directions during birth, death, naming or marriage ceremonies. They were also used to make announcements such as an arrival or departure, to summon the ancestors or in healing ceremonies.
When a guamo was used in a healing ceremony, the behike (medicine man) would supervise the ceremony. The sick person would lie down and people would circle around singing, chanting, drumming, shaking rattles and playing the guamo. Anything that altered the vibration was believed to heal the sick person.
A guamo would be used to announce the return of or to welcome home travelers, by foot or kanoa. Travelers out on the open sea in the dark could blow a guamo and know if they were near land or not, for if they were near land, the sound would return to them by echoing back, if they were far from land the sound would just fade away. If they were near land their guamo would signal their arrival to their home or another yukayeke (village) and another guamo would answer in greeting or a welcoming home. If you were approaching a village on foot, to either pass through or to visit, you would blow your guamo to signal your approach, this would indicate your friendly intentions and you would not be attacked.
The guamo itself was found in the ocean. Hundreds of years ago some guamos would grow to be huge, bigger than basketballs and could be used for ornamental use only. Guamos can be a little hard to find now, especially the larger sizes, but before the onslaught of civilization, guamos would wash up on shores after storms and literally cover the beaches. The Taino would gather them, eat their meat and then prepare the shell for use. The conch meat is a delicious mussel that is high in protein. It can be eaten raw, boiled in stews or cooked over the barbakoa.
To prepare the guamo for use as an instrument, you would first remove the meat, clean the shell (which would be filled with sand), dry it and then taking the large end with the pointed appendage (which needs to be removed) begin to grind. Today we have hacksaws and can easily saw off this appendage which reveals the hole where the mouth will be placed to blow into the chambers to make the sounds. But back in the day the Taino would break off this appendage first by carefully hitting it against a rock, and then the ragged and sharp edges would be ground against a rock until the opening was smooth. The larger the guamo, the more interior chambers there are on the inside, and the more versatile the guamo will be as an instrument because the
additional chambers create more possiblities for a variety of pitches and sounds. Longer shells give a sharper sound.
Both Taino men and women wore a nagua (loincloth) which was attached with a cord of cabuya (woven hemp/cotton) around the waist. At the end of the guamo, there is a little bent tip, this tip would be tucked under the cord of cabuya and the guamo would be worn there, just under the waist, lying flat against the thigh. Another cord would be tied around the circumference of the shell (you will notice that there is a natural ridge around the shell which makes it easy for the cord of cabuya to fit around) and ensures that the shell will stay put during daily activities.
To play the guamo takes a little practice. First, you hold the guamo in your hand with the large end near your mouth... hold the guamo up and out, not straight up, not straight down, but up and out, no matter if you are right or left-handed. There are natural points around the exterior of the large end of the shell, and your hand should fit there quite comfortably and naturally. Purse your lips and place the guamo against them and blow. It is not as easy as it looks and you can blow til you are blue in the face, but it is not really the force of the air that makes it blow nearly as much as it is the technique with the lips. Once you get the basic blowing sound down, you can practice doing short blasts and long blasts, high and low pitches. A trick you can use to make different pitches is to put your fingers of the hand you use to hold the shell, into the shell opening, which immediately causes the sound of the shell to change. I have a little thing I do that works for my daughter and I, she calls it "the Popeye" because you kind of put your lips halfway on the opening of the shell and blow out the side of your mouth... it works every time! Whatever it takes for you to do it, just be sure to learn it and teach your children, because it is a very important part of our culture.
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