For generations, people have walked the shores of Niihau’s remote beaches collecting tiny treasured shells, later hand-sewn together to make intricate, special lei.
Such craftsmanship takes more than just skill, precision, patience and dexterity. It also takes focus, rhythm and much aloha, said Kumu Kele Kanahele, a renowned Niihau shell lei master who passionately shared his knowledge with 24 people Thursday during a sold-out workshop at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel.
With his encouraging guidance, each participant crafted their own roselani- or pikake-style lei using more than 200 shells. Purchased from stores, a Niihau shell lei can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on the length, quality and quantity of the strands. A law established in 2004 prohibits lei from being labeled “Niihau” unless at least 80 percent of their shells are Niihau shells.
Kanahele’s workshop was a part of the 11th annual He Lei Hiwa No Iolani Luahine Hula Festival, continuing today and Saturday in Kailua-Kona.
When Kanahele was 5 years old, he began collecting shells, which have a higher luster and are more brilliant in color than similar ones found on other islands. He said he did so without much intention at first, just watching and following family members. His teachers were his grandparents, who were among the first pioneers of the many styles of Niihau shell lei.
Because of the shell’s small size and rarity, it can take months, even years, to fill a typical 18-ounce guava jelly jar, especially depending on the needed color and type. The shells most used are momi, laiki and kahelelani, he said.
Through the years, Kanahele learned how to clean, sort and store the shells, use a sharp-pointed awl to pierce a hole in them and create patterns. At age 12, he made his first pikake-style lei and sold it for $30. Since then, Kanahele has continued to collect shells and make lei daily. He’s also ardent about sharing his knowledge which is why he teaches workshops throughout the state, on the mainland and in Japan. The first workshop he held was in 1999 at the Lyman Museum in Hilo, he added.
“I love to do this,” Kanahele said, glancing around the hotel ballroom at his students, whose fingers were busy and meticulously threading the shells into works of art. “I am always happy to help anyone who is willing to learn and love sharing Hawaiian traditions. If Hawaiian traditions are not passed on, they don’t live on.”
Education is a major component of the He Lei Hiwa No Iolani Luahine Hula Festival. The original organizers Kumu Iwalani Kalima, Kumu Pekelo Day and George Naope, a living treasure of Hawaii and Merrie Monarch Hula Festival founder, initially produced a keiki hula scholarship competition because they believed in the importance of perpetuating hula and the Hawaiian culture. They also wanted to help all children who wished to study it further, said Kumu Keala Ching, who is organizing the Kumu Hula Challenge.
Instead of continuing the competition, Ching came up with the idea of the Kumu Hula Challenge, now in it’s second year. Kumu are tasked with researching a chant, mele, costumes and adornments, as well as teaching the purpose, significance and relationships behind all the components to their hula halau. Their performances and knowledge are judged at the challenges, happening at 4:30 p.m. today and 1 p.m. Saturday at the Hulihee Palace. Awards go to the kumu who most accurately demonstrates the values of education and Hawaiian culture, Ching said. There’s no admission to attend these challenges, he added.
Since 2003, the festival has continued to perpetuate hula and Hawaiian culture. It also honors the memory and carries the legacy of Iolani Luahine, one of Hawaii’s most revered kumu hula and cultural practitioners. Born in Napoopoo, Luahine helped keep the Hawaiian culture alive during the days when it was suppressed. She was also a longtime curator for Hulihee Palace. Among the many students who continued her legacy were Naope and Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, Ching said.
The best part of the festival, he added, is seeing all Luahine’s students and their students share what they learned from her, how she impacted them, and what they’re doing to continue her legacy.
Presented by Na Wai Iwi Ola Foundation and Ching, the festival also offers various workshops, costing $55 to $300, at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel and evening musical entertainment events, with a suggested donation of $10, at Hulihee Palace.
To see a complete schedule, register for a workshop or learn more about the festival, visit iolaniluahinefestival.org.