pearly shells from pearl harbour, a bilingual hit

March 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the most famous songs in Hawaiian music is this one:  Known as Pearly Shells in its English version, it is a well-loved traditional Hawaiian song, Pupu a ’o ‘Ewa, ‘The shells of Ewa’. The movie is Donovan’s Reef, made in 1964 by the director John Ford, one of cinema’s greats of the 20th century. The movie, a comedy starring among others the Western actor, John Wayne, was set in French Polynesia but filmed in Hawai’i. It has some very typical romanticisations of the Pacific, but also helped to produce ‘Pearly Shells’ as an important icon of Hawai’i and virtually a commodity of Hawaiian culture. The process of becoming an icon however began much earlier with the arrival in the islands of Webley Edwards in the 1920s. He would go on to have an extremely interesting career on radio. His show Hawaii Calls was a big hit, but even back then he garnered criticism for creating pastiche versions of Hawaiian musical culture. He also happened to be the announcer on the local radio who issued the first broadcast news on the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, the event that pulled the US into World War II. He also happened to be the first to interview the crew of the Enola Gay, the American plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, effectively ending the war. It was Edwards that created the English lyrics of the song, which seem only vaguely related to the original.

This version became a hit for a number of American singers/entertainers, including Connie Francis, Burl Ives and others. Here’s Connie. However, we cannot claim that the song has become an external icon of Hawai’i that Hawaiians have disowned. One of the more famous contemporary musicians of that state performs this song.  This is Keali’i Reichel’s version. I find this one easier to hear the Hawaiian language (and one version of the Hawaiian lyrics with translation are included, the chorus of which is given below).

Püpü (a`o `Ewa) i ka nu`a (nä känaka)
E naue mai (a e `ike)
I ka mea hou (o ka `äina)
Ahe `äina (ua kaulana)
Mai nä küpuna mai
Alahula Pu`uloa he ala hele no
Ka`ahupahau, (Ka`ahupähau)
Alahula Pu`uloa he ala hele no
Ka`ahupähau, Ka`ahupähau
Shells of `Ewa throngs of people
Coming to learn
The news of the land
A land famous
From the ancient times
All of Pu`uloa, the path trod upon by
All of Pu`uloa, the path trod upon by

Elsewhere on youtube you can see performers singing the English and or Hawaiian song at home, performing dances from various parts of Polynesia and even hybrid hula-line dancing versions. Even now, this ‘traditional’ song is transforming and becoming transnational in late modernity.

 A fascinating sidenote to this story is the fact that the placename referenced in the Hawaiian version is in fact Pearl Harbour. Ironic given the fact that Edwards announced the destruction. Source: Na Mele `O Hawai`i Nei by Elbert & Mahoe, Olowalu Massacre by Aubrey Janion – The news of the land was the discovery of pearl oysters at Pu`uloa, the Hawaiian name for Pearl Harbor, that was protected by Ka`ahupähau, the shark goddess. Ka`ala is the highest mountain on O`ahu and Polea is located in `Ewa. Nu`a and naue in the chorus is often interchanged with nuku (mouth) and lawe (bring). Moa`e is the name of a tradewind. In 1909, the Navy issued a $1.7 million contract for construction of the first Pearl Harbor dry dock. Kapuna Kanakeawe, a Hawaiian fisherman, told the contractor to build it in another location as the spot they selected was the home of Ka`ahupähau. Work stopped after 3 months as things kept going wrong. Cement would not pour and the contractor could not pump water out of the dry dock. February 17, 1913, 2 years behind schedule, opening ceremonies were held. Then it exploded. One man was killed, $4,000,000 lost and 4 years of work demolished. Another contract was issued in November, 1914. As work progressed, the early warning given by Kanakeawe was remembered. Mrs. Puahi, a kahuna, was called, and instructed the foreman, David Richards, in the necessary rituals to appease Ka`ahupähau and safeguard the project. After sacrifices were made, prayers chanted and rituals performed, the project was declared safe. When the bottom was pumped out, the skeleton of a 14-foot shark was discovered. Pearl Harbor was also the site of ancient Hawaiian fishponds.


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