Pūpū o Ni‘ihau

An Essay by Kīhei de Silva

Haku mele: Variously credited to: 1) Malaki Kanahele (according to liner notes for Ho‘okena‘s CD Nā Kai ‘Ewalu, Ho‘omau 1993, HICD1003). 2) Kauanaulu Wailiula (according to Kimo Alama Keaulana, MS Grp 329; and liner notes for the Melelani Serenaders' audio cassette Kaulana o Ni‘ihau, Hula HS579). 3) Lilia Niau (according to liner notes for the Kahelelani Serenaders' audio cassette Nani Ni‘ihau, LPAI-0012C).

Date: Uncertain.

Sources: 1) Josephine Pine Kelley and Kelmar Kele Kanahele, personal communication, October 2000. 2) Rerioterai Tava and Moses K. Keale, Sr., Niihau, The Traditions of a Hawaiian Island, 37. 3) Liner notes for Ho'okena's CD Nā Kai ‘Ewalu. 4) Kimo Alama Keaulana Collection, MS Grp 329, 6.93:193, Bishop Museum Archives. 5) Ka‘iulani Kanoa Martin, Huapala Hawaiian Music and Hula Archives, huapala.org (website).

Discography: 1) "Pupu o Niihau," The Kahelelani Serenaders, Nani Niihau, LPAI-00012C. 2) "Pupu o Niihau," The Melelani Serenaders, Kaulana o Niihau, Hula HS579. 3) "Ni‘ihau Medley," Ho‘okena, Nā Kai ‘Ewalu, Ho‘omau 1993. 4) "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau," Darlene Ahuna, A Bridge Between Generations, Cord/Hana Ola HOCDA 5700. 5) "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau," Sean Na‘auao, Holomua 2003. 6) "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau" Genoa Keawe, Legends of Falsetto, Cord International, Hana Ola HOCD35000

Our text: As shared by Josephine Kelley and Kelmar Kanahele. Hawaiian orthography and translation by Kīhei de Silva

We learned "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau" in the commons room of the girls' dormitory of Lycee Dokamo, Noumea, New Caledonia on Monday, October 23, 2000. We were supposed to participate, that evening, in the Gala Opening of the 8th Festival of Pacific Arts, but heavy rain and wind caused the event to be postponed. As a result, the Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilima and Anuhea contingents of the Hawai‘i delegation to the festival set aside the gala choreography of Aboriginal Australian Raymond Blanco to participate, instead, in a hula "symposium" conducted by two members of our delegation's Ni‘ihau ‘Ohana: the Aboriginal Hawaiians Kele (Kelmar) Kanahele and Pine (Josephine) Kelley. 

In other words, the big show fell through, so Kele and Pine decided to share "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau" with us. Kele taught the motions, Pine taught the words, Anuhea (David Ka‘io, Alan Distajo, and Kalani Kūpau) sang, and we danced. The collaboration pleased us so much that we included "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau" in nearly every subsequent ‘auana performance of our three-week trip. By our second performance – at Poindimie in Province Nord – we had already asked and received permission from the senior members of the Ni‘ihau ‘Ohana – Kaleipua Pahulehua, Hali‘imaile Shintani, Pine Kelley, and Kele Kanahele – to take the song home, teach it to our entire Merrie Monarch class, and present it, with Anuhea, at the 2001 Merrie Monarch Festival. We simply could not pass up the opportunity to perform "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau" in a Merrie Monarch venue and thereby enter this precious gift into today's most wide-reaching and permanent record of hula. Our Ni‘ihau friends have allowed us to present and preserve both a wonderful memory of our time together in New Caledonia and their version of a treasured family song. And if this weren't enough, they have made and given us the lei pūpū o Ni‘ihau that our ladies will wear for this Merrie Monarch presentation.

Pine's explanation of the song's kaona, that night at Dokamo, was simple, subtle, and full of laughter. "It is not a song about the Ni‘ihau shell; it is song about love. The person wants to be with his pūpū o Ni‘ihau. You can imagine what that is all about. ‘Ku‘u Lei Pūpū' [another song she taught us] is about shells; this one is not." 

In the first verse of "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau," the composer pleads for the "shell's" attention and asks that she reveal her beauty. In the second verse, he praises her beauty as elegant and far-reaching, and defines it as his heart's greatest desire. In the third verse, he places himself at Hā‘upu – a metaphor of nostalgic hindsight – where memory overwhelms him and his thoughts return again and again to his beloved. In the fourth verse, he implores her to love him, join with him, and become his partner in the lonely place he now occupies. And in the fifth verse, he restates, in familiar "ha‘ina" fashion, his plea for attention: Where are you? Please listen.

We know of six additional verses to the song: the "Ka moena pāwehe," "Ka Ua Nāulu," and "Hea aku mākou" verses commonly sung in the version attributed to Mary Robbins and Johnny Noble,[1] as well as the almost unknown "E ka wai huna a ka pāo‘o," "E ka nalu ha‘i mai a‘o ‘Ōhi‘a," and "Aia iā Kūhaimoana ka‘u aloha" verses that belong to the Ea Collection of Mileka Kanahele.[2] These verses give considerable resonance to the song; they provide often-familiar allusions to Ni‘ihau place-names, stories, and traditions, all of which serve to augment "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau's" intensely expressed, let's-love-again message.

For example, the first of the three above-mentioned Kanahele verses alludes to the same crevice-dwelling goby fish[3] of Lehua that appears in the mele ma‘i "Pūnana ka Manu i Haili," the second paukū (verse) of the set refers to the same easily-picked breadfruit of Kawaihoa[4] that appears in "E Ho‘i ke Aloha i Ni‘ihau," and the last of these paukū features a now obscure reference to Ni‘ihau's guardian shark Kūhaimoana and a section of Ni‘ihau coastline with which he must have been regularly associated.[5]

E ka wai huna ho‘i a ka pāo‘o

O the hidden water of the pāo‘o

Famous water of the ancestors

O the breaking surf of ‘Ōhi‘a

And the breadfruit on the reef

My love was with Kūhaimoana

At the kapu threshold of Hi‘iaka.

‘O ka wai kaulana a nā kūpuna


E ka nalu ha‘i mai a‘o ‘Ōhi‘a

Me nā ‘ulu hua noho i ka hāpapa

Aia ia Kūhaimoana ka‘u aloha

Me ka paepae kapu a Hi‘iaka

The permanent, made-for-each other relationship of the first two pairs argues for the same relationship in the third. All three verses, moreover, describe male-female connections of a decidedly intimate nature: fish in pool, tree in reef, and shark in landing.  All told, they illustrate and reinforce the plea for re-union that is set forth in the five verses given to us by Pine and Kele: as pāo‘o belongs to wai huna, as ‘ulu belongs to hāpapa, as Kūhaimoana belongs to paepae, so – implies the composer – should I belong to pūpū o Ni‘ihau. 

"Pūpū o Ni‘ihau," then, is a song of intense longing for what the composer once had and for what he desperately wants back. It amounts, as well, to a promise of loyal devotion; if she gives him her love, they will be pili (close), they will be ko'olua (paired), they will inhabit a kahi mehameha (secluded place) into which no one else can intrude. Their union, moreover, will mirror the traditional, time-honored, interlocking relationships of Ni‘ihau: of the intricately woven moena pāwehe (patterned mat), of Nāulu rain falling on ferns, of pāo'o water, reef-grown breadfruit, and guardian shark. 

Ni‘ihau people apparently regard the outcome of this plea and promise as positive.  According to Kele and Pine, "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau" is commonly sung at Ni‘ihau weddings – events at which the "shell" receives permission to reveal, love, join, and permanently partner.  We present the song in this same positive, happy-ending light.

Pūpū o Ni‘ihau

Pūpū o Ni‘ihau ‘auhea ‘oe

Hō‘ike a‘e ‘oe a i kou nani.[6]

He nani hiehie ‘oi kelakela

Ka ‘i‘ini nui ia o ku‘u pu‘uwai.[7]

I luna māua a‘o Hā‘upu[8]

‘Upu a‘e ke aloha nou e ka ipo

Hō mai ko aloha pili me a‘u

I ko‘olua noho i kahi mehameha.

Ha‘ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana

Pūpū o Ni‘ihau, ‘auhea ‘oe.

Shell of Ni‘ihau, where are you?

Reveal your beauty.

A beauty of supreme elegance

It is the great desire of my heart.

We two are up at Hā‘upu / Hā‘upu and I were up above.

Where love wells up for you, my sweetheart.

Give me your love, join with me

As my partner in this lonely place.

Tell the song's refrain

Shell of Ni‘ihau, where are you?


  1. 1.© John Avery Noble 1932. One of the most popular recordings of the Robbins-Noble version of the song was released by Genoa Keawe as "Ni'ihau Hula" on the 49th State label; it was recently re-issued as "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau" on the anthology Legends of Falsetto, Cord International, Hana Ola HOCD35000.

  2. 2.Words to this version are available at huapala.org under "Pūpū o Ni‘ihau"

  3. 3.Kawaihunaakapāo'o, the hidden water of the pāo‘o fish, is the name of a small pool in the rocky crevices of a cliff on Lehua Island. The pāo'o variety of  'o'opu (goby) would climb the cliff and hide in these wet crevices, hence the name of the hidden pūnāwai (Rerioterai Tava and Moses Keale, Sr., Ni'ihau, The Traditions of a Hawaiian Island, 100).

  4. 4.Nā ‘ulu hua i ka hāpapa, the ‘ulu that bears fruit on the reef, is the name of a specific breadfruit tree planted in a deep hole in the upraised reef at Kawaihoa. When the mature tree bore fruit, they could easily be picked by a person standing on the reef above (Tava and Keale, 26).

  5. 5.The enormous shark Kūhaimoana is said to inhabit a cave at Ka‘ula and to protect the people and waters of Ni‘ihau from all who would do them harm (Tava and Keale, 21). He is connected, in this verse of the song, to Paepae o Hi‘iaka, the threshold/landing/mound of Hi‘iaka, which is located at the southernmost tip of Ni‘ihau, just east of Kawaihoa point (Tava and Keale, 122,130). The imagery of this verse has a definite mele ma‘i quality.

  6. 6.Hō‘ike a‘e ‘oe...‘oi kelakela: The composer of this song was apparently well-versed in traditional compositions and, in true haku mele fashion, enjoyed echoing in his own work the words of his fellow poets. For example, his "Hō‘ike a‘e ‘oe i kou nani / He nani hiehie ‘oi kelekela" plays delightfully with lines from a well-known mele inoa for Kalākaua: "Hō‘ike mai ‘oe a i kou nani / Ka mālamalama ‘oi kelakela." The same holds true for the "moena pāwehe" verse of the "Robbins'" version (it echoes the opening lines of Kalekahe's "Aloha Ni‘ihau" – Tava and Keale, 19-20); and for the already-discussed pāo‘o and ‘ulu hua verses of the long Kanahele text.

  7. 7.Pu'uwai: This, of course, is also the name of Ni‘ihau's main settlement. Its original name, Kauanāulu, was later changed to Pu‘uwai Aloha o ka ‘Ohana which, in turn, was shortened to Pu‘uwai (Tava and Keale, 5).

  8. 8.Hā‘upu: The name is not listed in the extensive Ni‘ihau map index provided by Tava and Keale (121-129). While this does not eliminate the possibility that the Hā‘upu of this verse is a Ni‘ihau place-name, I find it more likely that the reference is to Hā‘upu Peak in southeast Kaua'i. The perspective offered by this Hā‘upu's geographical separation from Ni‘ihau, as well as the word's literal meaning, "to recall, remember," works nicely with the composer's isolated, far-seeing, and nostalgic mental state. The line "I luna māua a‘o Hā‘upu" makes for ambiguous translation and interpretation. It can be read as "We two [but not you] were on top of Hā‘upu" or "Hā‘upu and I were up above." In the first case, the poet is with someone else (another lover?) at Hā‘upu when all he can think of is his Ni‘ihau-shell sweetheart. In the second case, Hā‘upu is the mountain-peak companion that provides him with his distant, memory-filled perspective.

© Kīhei de Silva 2001.  All rights reserved.
This essay was first published in Hālau Mōhala ‘Ilimaʻs 2001 Merrie Monarch Fact Sheet. 

It is offered here in slightly revised and updated form.