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Florida Keys News
Monday, August 18, 2014
Conchalele -- music to the ear
'It has a voice from the bottom of the sea'

It looks like an obese mountain dulcimer and sounds like a tropical banjo, but the conchalele is truly a one-of-a-kind musical instrument.

And it is gaining popularity throughout the Keys -- and now the world, according to its creator Bob MacPhail.

This retired Navy chief owns a sailboat, which he keeps at the Boca Chica Marina at Naval Air Station Key West. He is also a professor of communications at Florida Southwestern State College, but spends his weekends, days off and semester breaks here in the Keys.

Having created this new instrument, he plans to brand it worldwide in the next year.

"The conchalele is the right instrument to have," he said proudly. "The instrument has a unique reverb and has a voice from the bottom of the sea."

It is an electric baritone made from a South Pacific melo conch shell with a handmade fret board, nylon strings and a rosewood neck, he said. It's held together with two stainless bolts, but can support the dynamic strength of 53 pounds of string tension at pitch.

MacPhail invented the instrument after hours of tutoring from Francis Chilcoat, a master luthier maker of string instruments from West Virginia.

"It took three months to build with testing and science," MacPhail said. "I wouldn't have tried to do it without him."

Chilcoat mentored him via the phone, with everything including material information, inlay work and placement of the parts.

"One of my goals is to get the conchalele proclaimed as the official instrument of the Conch Republic," MacPhail said. "My biggest passion is coming and playing music in the Keys."

Since June, the conchalele has been used in several local spots including Harpoon Harry's, Mallory Square and Dockside Tropical Café in Marathon.

"The conchalele is a very well constructed, heavy duty instrument," said musician Eric Stone, whose wife owns Dockside Tropical Café. "It would work very well for the right type of music, and has an island vibe. It basically makes no sound unless hooked up to a system, but it has nice action and tone."

Next summer, MacPhail heads for Europe to tour for two months with the instrument and a harp player, performing concerts at military bases.

He plans to craft four more of the instruments and hand them out to trop rock musicians who can help get the sound out to locals.

"Ukeles are popular," said MacPhail. "There is a great interest in younger generations."

The sound is so popular that on the first Wednesday of every month, the Green Parrot Bar has a ukulele night.

"I was stunned by how many people showed up the first night," said John Vagnoni, who organized the event. "We continue to encourage everyone to dig out that old ukulele from the attic or closet and strum your way into a four-string stupor at Green Parrot Ukulele Night."

The conchalele is similar to a ukulele in size, but has a different sound to it.

"I would like it to be the trop rock instrument." MacPhail said. "My long-term goal is to get it picked up and manufactured as an instrument. I want to help meet the need for four-string instruments."

If the sound of the conchalele piques your curiosity, there are several videos with the instrument on You Tube and at conchalelemon.blogspot.com with information about performances.

"Digital media is explosive," MacPhail said. "Please leave comments on the website. The comments left on posts make all the difference in the world."

ecareaga@keysnews.com

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