"Pearly Shells" and the Hawaiian History Behind the Melody
[Ed. Note: Harry is the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame Archivist, better known to local radio listeners as the Emcee of "Territorial Airwaves". Here he responds to a request we received from a grammar school in Arcadia, Australia whose students were researching the origin and significance of the song.]
"Pearly Shells" was created when Webley Edwards, the host of the world-famous radio show "Hawai`i Calls" put English words to the melody of an older Hawaiian language song. Edwards collaborated with Leon Pober, using the melody line from locally popular "Pupu A `O `Ewa".
From the books "Na Mele O Hawai`i" (Elbert & Mahoe) and "Olowalu Massacre" (Aubrey Janion, we learn the following story which is referred to in the lyrics of the traditional "Pupu A `O `Ewa": "Shells of `Ewa /throngs of people/coming to learn/the news of the land."
The "news of the land" was the discovery of pearl oysters at Pu`uloa, the Hawaiian name for Pearl Harbor, protected by Ka`ahupahau, the shark goddess. The lyrics also mention Ka`ala, which is the highest mountain on O`ahu, and Polea, located in `Ewa. Nu`a and naue (in the chorus) are often interchanged with nuku (mouth) and lawe (bring.) Moa`e is the name of a tradewind.
In 1909, the Navy issued a $1.7 thousand 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 the shark goddess. Work stopped after three 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, two years behind schedule, opening ceremonies were held. Then the dry dock exploded. One man was killed, $4,000,000 lost and four 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`ahupahau 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.)
Ed. Note: Bet you'll think a little differently now about Webley Edwards' version of the lyrics, and of the history of Pearl Harbor itself.