Kahele shares ‘Hawaiian gold’ with fans
BY NINA WU / email@example.com
Wherever musician Kuana Torres Kahele goes, he wears a lei.
At the Na Hoku Hanohano music awards ceremony in May, Kahele wore three layers of 10-strand, Niihau shell lei of rare colors. The stunning adornments, worth more than $100,000, represented some of the best examples of the traditional art form, as well as Kahele’s infatuation with lei and music.
Where to Buy:
Niihau Shell Lei calendars will be sold at Kuana Torres Kahele concerts on the following dates:
» Aug. 3, 6 p.m., Keaukaha Gym, Hilo. Tickets: $15 (keiki ages 12 and under free). With kumu Johnny Lum Ho’s Halau Ka Ua Kani Lehua.
» Sept. 8, 6 p.m., Hawaii Theatre. With kumu Sonny Ching’s Halau Na Mamo o Pu’uanahulu. Tickets: $30 to $50 (discounts available for keiki, seniors).
To purchase or order Niihau shell lei, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kahele, 34, who won two awards that night, has become a musical ambassador of sorts for the exquisite, handcrafted Niihau shell necklaces, which he calls “Hawaiian gold.”
“I love to support everything that is Hawaiian,” Kahele said by phone from Fukushima, Japan, one of the stops during a 40-city summer concert tour. “I love to support local artisans of Hawaii. This just so happens to be one of the few things I really love about Hawaii — lei making.”
The Hilo-born musician received his first Niihau shell lei as a gift from lei maker Ehu Kanahele while performing at a party on Kauai a few years ago. It was a white lei made of alilea shells, larger than most varieties of Niihau shells.
“When I got my first lei, it was like a kid going to a candy store,” he said. “That’s when it all started, when my infatuation for (Niihau shell) lei began and I couldn’t stop.”
Kanahele is a member of a Niihau family revered for their lei-making skills across several generations. Her mother, Mama Ane Kanahele, is one of the eldest living lei masters from the isle. The two, along with much of the extended Kanahele family, accompanied Kahele to the awards ceremony for luck.
Kahele considers the Kanaheles his second family, and while on tour he brings their lei to sell, returning all of the proceeds to them.
Photos from Kahele’s personal Niihau shell collection are featured in a new calendar distributed by record label Mountain Apple Co.
They show the diversity of color combinations and styles, and highlight the more commonly seen white kahelelani shells along with rarer shells, all with their own names, in hues of blue, pink, butterscotch, gold, black and brown.
The calendar is available through kumu Sonny Ching’s Halau Na Mamo o Pu‘uanahulu in Honolulu, kumu Johnny Lum Ho’s Halau Ka Ua Kani Lehua in Hilo and kumu Leina‘ala Jardin’s Halau Ka Lei Mokihana o Leina‘ala on Kauai.
Some of the money collected from calendar sales will go back to the Niihau shell artisans and the halau, which will be hosting a Kahele concert and dancing to music from his new CD, “Kahele,” which hits stores July 30.
The title of the new CD, which includes a kahako (or macron) over the “a,” translates to “decorated for a journey, as with a lei.” It’s a play on Kahele’s last name, and on the cover he wears a maile garland draped over a multistrand brown and gold Niihau shell lei.
“Symbolically, I like to describe (my music) as a lei, and I take the lei with me wherever I go in the world,” he said.
NIIHAU SHELLS are gathered on the isolated shores of Niihau, nicknamed the Forbidden Isle because it is privately owned and travel there is restricted.
Prices range from $100 for a simple, single strand to $30,000 for a high-quality, multistrand lei made of shells in prized colors. The value is determined by the rarity and quality of shells used as well as the skill of the artisan, according to the Ni‘ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation.
Many hours of tedious labor go into making the lei, which involves gathering and cleaning the shells, sorting them by kind, color or size, and drilling holes so they can be strung.
It’s one of the few sources of income for Niihauans and a tradition in danger of dying out if it isn’t passed down to the next generations, which is why Kahele wants to help.
He has even begun making shell lei during his downtime on the road, after learning from Mama Kanahele.
A visit to Niihau in January only cemented Kahele’s affection for the island and its traditions.
“Imagine going somewhere that is untouched by mankind and the only hand that touched it is nature,” he said. “So everything is raw, as in untouched. … The beaches are just pristine. … It is what Hawaii intended it to be.”
Within 10 minutes of landing on Niihau, he composed the melody and words to “Nanina,” about one of the beaches there. The song is one of the 14 featured on the “Kahele” album.
Kahele said many owners of Niihau shell lei have them stowed away somewhere in a safe, but he encourages people to take them out and share their beauty with others.
“You got it, wear it,” he said.