Soggy Sonorities

The first time, self-appointed arbiters dismissed it as a lark, this weird underwater musical performance (in January) concocted by a radio newsman (Bill Becker) and his dentist/arts-council diving buddy Dr. Fred Troxel. A few years later, doubters allowed that the "gimmick" had achieved fad status. Celebrating its twentieth anniversary, the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival has proved that listening to the critics isn't always wise and proved itself to be not only legitimate but a true tropical treasure. Accessible only by boat (call for a slot now!) and requiring at least a mask and snorkel, the combination of water and music is a midsummer's daydream come true.

It is still the Keys, and in musical terms the keys, so we'll get to the fun and puns in a moment. But two decades of success require a bit more than that. Perhaps foremost in significance is the event's emphasis on the natural value of its venue. South Florida is blessed with barrier reefs, including North America's only living coral reef. It's alive! And it's also party central for shiners and sharks, crabs and snapper, angelfish and devilfish, eels, lobster, and many members of the saltwater community. Miles long, the reef system's value as a barrier, food source, and unique entity cannot be overstated.

The music that will be performed to showcase this precious coral creation also carries some seriousness. Since the beginning, the Submerged Symphony and other performers have relied on a still-remarkable bit of technology: Lubell Laboratories speakers, which are suspended from boats to amplify underwater music to underwater listeners. (Note: Don't try submersing your Bose set.) Further, the main act follows the baton of the Key West Symphony's award-winning conductor, Sebrina Maria Alfonso. (On this day it's probably cool to call her "Sea-brina.")

Okay, the puns have begun, and here's some of the fun that swims around the showcased sea life, serious musical aspect, and technological innovation that mark this unique harmonic submergence. Instruments designed by artist August Powers include a trombonefish, a stag horn, a manta-lin. Subsurface submediants? Mermaid fades? Barra-codas? Co-coordinator Nancy Herlehy, who works with main flounder Bill Becker of radio station Conch FM (WCNK-FM 98.7), suggests that, this being the twentieth anniversary, attendees go formal for a "masked ball -- dive masks, that is." Salted-rim shot, please.

Also making waves in the past have been such soaked songmakers as a mermaid with a harp, a trio of diving divas, patriotic parade marchers, and, of course, a troupe of snorkeling Elvis impersonators. Songs to be expected: "Yellow Submarine" and Jimmy Buffett's "Fins." Whale sounds, which fall in import somewhere between the Beatles and Buffett, will wail. Great White, Phish, and the Mermen were apparently unavailable. So what? Only a dip wouldn't dive into this wetting ceremony. Expecting the "fad" or "gimmick" to sink into oblivion? Don't hold your breath. -- Greg Baker

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