“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 crimson wiliwili haole seed; 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 a kumu 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.”
Mel’s training as a lei maker dates 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 Monday through Wednesday and Saturday 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.
There is no way to overstate the painstaking nature of shell lei-making, and though Mel often uses “we” when he speaks, his is largely a one-man operation: In addition to selling lei, he makes a living by teaching workshops in Hawaii and throughout the world - everywhere from California to France, Mexico to Japan. He also has his hula school, Halau Hula o Kahokuloa to keep him busy but, unlike many kumu, he has no long-term lei-making apprentices. “There are students, but they don’t last long,” he says with a chuckle. “Everybody likes to make lei; nobody wants to do the time-consuming, repetitive work of picking the shells and cleaning them, sorting by color and by size, or learning the terminology connected to shells, moon phases or place names. On Niihau there’s generally a decent amount of family, so they tend to have a lot more hands to do this work and can produce things much faster than someone like me.”
But those who know Mel’s work are willing to wait: A typical five-strand shell lei can take him up to two years, start to finish. More specialized commissions take even longer. One customer wanted a particular type of blue-hued shell, strung in such a way as to create a lei as round and thick as a sausage. “That type of lei is normally made as a hatband,” says Mel. “But the younger generation doesn’t wear hats. So I conceived of a way to sew them in the round - so far in my lifetime, we’ve only made six.” Because of the time it took to perfectly match the size and color of the shells, the lei ultimately took five years to complete.
This kind of patient, constant labor is hardly quantifiable, but it’s still surprising that the most Mel has ever directly charged for a lei is $1,800 (though his lei are sometimes sold by others for more than twice that). As often as not, he makes them for friends, often for free. Part of the problem, he says, is that he never inherited his grandmother’s business sense. There is also an internal struggle between accepting payment for his highly-skilled labor and adhering to a tradition wherein lei are given, not sold. In the end, the scale always tips away from the business and toward something more profound.
Mel’s is a life governed by the minutiae of the seasons: the surf that deposits certain shells on certain beaches at certain times of year; the strong wind that, once a year at most, will bring the wiliwili haole seeds to the ground … if you know where to look. In other words, it comes back to the question of focus. “Only the people who make these lei will ever truly know the cost,” he says, setting down his string of seeds as the afternoon moves toward twilight. “But if you do this long enough you learn to be philosophical. You have to be accepting of what you find on the beach; you have to make peace with what you have for the day. And you also have to recognize that you have a choice: You have a choice when it comes to being smart about where you look for things.”
Mel Lantaka can be reached for custom lei orders at 808-593-2323.