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The Shell Kumu 

story by Roland Gilmore

photos by Dana Edmunds


“I look forward to the day when gasoline goes to six bucks a gallon,”says Melvin Lantaka in his slow, methodical way, drawing out the sentence for full effect. “Because it will teach people to pay attention to their surroundings.” As he talks, he deftly works a 2-inch-long needle through the heart of a crimsonwiliwili haoleseed; he holds the smooth, raisin-size nut between thumb and long, careful fingers and slides it slowly down a fine thread until it comes to rest against its sisters—all of them carefully selected for size, shape and color.

The steady hum of afternoon traffic on King Street drifts through his anonymous, second-storey walk-up, which is jammed floor to ceiling with books, tools and jar upon jar of seeds and shells, each in a different stage of the lei-making process. Each jar represents untold hours of work in collecting, sorting, cleaning, drilling. As he works, a round, table-mounted magnifying glass—the sort used by jewelers to analyze the facets of diamonds—hovers on a long swivel near his head, within easy reach. Slim and tan, his hair showing a hint of gray, Mel’s got the look of a man who’s spent a lifetime in the sun and salt air. Even so, he’s impossible to age: the fruits of following one’s calling. He’s also got a sly, sometimes wicked sense of humor, but in this he’s not joking: People need to pay attention.

We’ve been talking about gathering shells on Niihau; about how, without cars to travel up to nine miles between home and certain beaches, Niihauans have to be mindful of their surroundings: to know the weather’s moods and how they affect the ocean; to know geography, both coastal and offshore; to know the life cycles of the animals that produce shells; to know the environmental factors that produce color variations in shells on different beaches; to know what time of year is best for gathering which shell from which beach. This knowledge is essential to the art of making shell lei.

Mel is not from Niihau, but knows these facts because lei makers talk shop. And he is a master lei maker, as well as akumu hula(hula teacher) who traces his artistic lineage back through the renowned kumu, Margeret Reiss, and later, Ceci Akim, Nathan Napoka, Earl Tenn and Pat Bacon. His is a line of cultural practitioners that does not enter dance competitions or perform commercially. They focus on teaching, preserving and perpetuating hula and its associated arts. And the lei—whether it is made of feather, shell, bone, seed, leaf or flower—is integral to the dance.

That Mel falls back on Niihau for his example is not surprising, because the island is renowned throughout the Pacific for its shell lei, some of which can fetch upward of $35,000. The Niihau shell lei even has a special legal status in Hawaii: Act 91, signed by Gov. Linda Lingle in 2004, prohibits any jewelry from being labeled “Niihau” if it is not strung within the state and made with at least 80 percent Niihau shells. The lei must also be labeled to show the exact percentage of Niihau shells used. But Niihau isn’t the only source of shells in Hawaii, nor is it the only place where the art of shell lei making is practiced.

“Actually a lot of other islands have excellent shells—at the right time and at the right places, Oahu has an abundance of shells,” he says. “There are families and individuals throughout the Islands that do the same thing, and they do top-quality work ... and the work is the same: The hours spent picking, the hours spent sorting, it’s all the same.”



The Shell Kumu (Page 2)

 Mel’s training as a lei makerdates back to his childhood on Oahu’s North Shore, where his grandparents raised him. “They had five girls,” he explains, “and their youngest boy died at a very early age, so they had no one to carry on the name. I’m the eldest boy in my family, so in typical Hawaiian fashion”—a pause for ironic effect—“even though they were Filipino, I was given to my grandparents and grew up with them as their official son.”

Eulogio and Benita Lantaka came to Hawaii at a very young age. Benita sold vegetables from a cart in Honolulu until she saved enough money to buy her own store in Haleiwa; Eulogio started out in the merchant marine and then after retiring became a commercial fisherman. “My grandmother was a strict Roman Catholic, but she was not averse to learning Hawaiian medicinal practices and thinking,” Mel recounts. “But I followed more in my grandfather’s way. He was a wonderful man and a great craftsperson: He built his own boats and his own fish traps. … He could do anything, just by looking at it and figuring out how to do it.”

Even so, Mel’s introduction to lei-making was somewhat happenstance: Following one of the three tsunami that hit the Islands between 1946 and 1957, Mel’s grandfather found some seeds floating in the water. He recognized them from his youth in the Philippines as a type of mangrove that was good at stabilizing soil. So he planted the seeds along the riverbank near their home. As it happens, the tree also produces a flower with a stiff calyx (the part of a flower that lies under the more conspicuous petals) in the shape of a red-yellow sunburst. Its name, kukunaokala, translates literally as “ray of the sun.”

“I was born in the Year of the Monkey, and my auntie Mattie was of the mind to send the monkey up the tree to pick flowers,” Mel recalls. “So I became a lei maker because of my grandfather’s planting that tree, and that’s the lei we became noted for—that particular tree and that particular flower. For a long time that’s all I did: learn about lei making by doing. There was no school in our time—you learned by watching.”

When Mel was teenager, he became interested in hula, and the tradition he was learning required him to make his own lei. (“There is nothing more embarrassing,” he says, “than making a lei and watching it fall apart as you’re dancing.”) And from there things progressed organically: As he grew into a young man, he sought out his peers—“which was pretty much the volleyball gang at Queen’s Surf”—and in the process met others who were involved in hula, lei-making and other cultural practices. Everyone shared what they knew and everyone learned together; Mel and his friends were increasingly asked to make lei for various events, for which they were usually paid in food. These days, his shell and seed lei can be found for sale at the Iolani Palace gift shop and Na Mea Makamae, in Waikiki’s Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center.

“If you’re passionate about lei making, eventually you become interested in shells,” he says of his creative trajectory. “But to this day, it’s a dilemma that most people only associate lei with something floral.” To combat this notion, whenever he sells his lei in person (which he does Tuesday through Friday mornings in the lobby of the New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel) he carries along a series of display boards, that trace the whole process from the birth of a shell to the finished lei.

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