Mel "Moki" Labra has some simple advice for people going to Lei Day events today: "Enjoy the beauty while it’s there."
Labra knows the ephemeral, short-lived nature of lei, but he puts so much effort and emotion into making the garlands, it’s as if he making something that will last forever. He is a prize-winning master lei maker — "one of many on the island," he says modestly.
For nearly all of his 44 years, he has "co-created" — again out of modesty, for he gives credit to the spiritual forces that guide him — graceful floral hat and head wreaths and necklaces that have brought joy to those who wear them.
For Labra, lei represent the happiness of giving and receiving, which keeps him rooted to the land that he says has given him so much.
"It all starts from the ground," he said. "These things that I co-create, they may not last forever, but at least we’re not ruining the environment. It all goes back to the ground."
84TH ANNUAL LEI DAY CELEBRATION
Sponsored by the city Department of Parks and Recreation
Where: Kapiolani Park Bandstand
When: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. today
Highlights: Royal Hawaiian Band, 9 a.m.; Na Wahine o ka Hula Mai ka Pu’u wai, 10 a.m.; investiture of Lei Day court, 11 a.m.; lei contest opens, 12:30 p.m.; entertainment featuring Kapena, Melveen Leed, Rebel Souljahz and others, 12:45-5:30 p.m.
MAY DAY AT WAIMEA VALLEY
Lei displays and demonstrations with master lei maker Melvin "Moki" Labra and other cultural activities
Where: 59-864 Kamehameha Highway (across from Wai mea Bay)
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today
Cost: $13 adults, $6 children and seniors; kamaaina/military rates are $8 adults, $5 children and seniors
3 TYPES OF LEI
* Lei kui — A strung lei, as in a plumeria lei
* Lei haku — A braided lei, as with ferns or flowers
* Lei wili — A lei in which the leaves or flowers are entwined, as in a maile lei
Source: "Hawaiian Dictionary," by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert
Labra grew up watching his grandmother Mary Kawi Ala Kuni Spillner make lei at the family’s oceanfront property near Waimea Bay. His family grew carnations and pikake, among other plants, and collected shells, all of which were woven carefully into her intricate lei. Though his grandmother did not give formal instruction to Labra, he feels a spiritual connection to her.
"I was the chosen one in the next generation of the family to continue our tradition," he said.
In the late 1980s he was winning North Shore lei contests as a young man and dancing with a hula group at Waimea Valley. During a promotional visit to the mainland, the group was joined by master lei maker Ray Wong, author of several books on lei, who would give demonstrations. One day, Labra substituted for Wong, who was immediately impressed.
"He saw how I worked with my hands, how these certain creations came about," Labra said. "He inspired me. He said, ‘Moki, go enter the big lei contests.’"
Labra entered four lei in the city’s Lei Day competition soon afterward and walked away with four awards. He didn’t even recognize his grand-prize-winning lei, a wili poepoe lei with orange and yellow flowers, because it had been adorned with ti leaves to receive its prize.
Labra went on to win many more contests but eventually withdrew from competition both out of deference to elder lei makers and because he felt it was "going to my head."
"A lot of times you take credit for things that you really did not create," he said. For him, being a lei maker "wasn’t really to get the applause, that kine. It’s just who you are."
LABRA HAS WORKED any number of casual jobs at restaurants, hotels and plantations but now makes lei to order from his home business, Na Lei Aloha. His works usually cost from $3 to $20, although he once charged $50 because the customer was willing to pay it. He also was recently chosen as a featured artisan at Waimea Valley cultural and botanical park.
One of his most treasured lei was made for a woman who had died but whose presence was still felt strongly by her friends. It included materials like feathers, coconut husks and fronds, kukui nuts and the seeds known as Job’s tears.
"It told the story of how we live, from ocean to mountain and mountain to ocean," he said. "My heart told me to give it to her to let her know that she was not dead, she’s still alive."
His approach to making a lei is as mysterious as any artist’s. He might ask the customer about the occasion for the lei and for a color recommendation. Sometimes he has to suggest a different color or flower if the desired plant is out of season, and sometimes he has to steer customers away from toxic plants. He collects material from his own garden or asks neighbors whether they will share from theirs.
Beyond that he relies on prayer — he always says a pule before starting to make a lei — and divine inspiration.
"A lot of times it’s through dreams or just a thought will come about," he said. "A lot of it is just curiosity about ‘What would this look like?’ You see this flower and you see that flower to blend together. Then you put them together and find out those two flowers are related," an experience he had with his grand-prize lei, which combined ohia lehua blooms with hibiscus.
His strong, agile hands then get to weaving, sewing, winding — whatever is needed to make the lei. Labra said some of that manual dexterity came from making fishnets with his father, but mostly his artistry comes from instinct and practice.
Time seems to stand still when he’s making lei. He once told a customer it would take five minutes to make a lei, but it took only one. When he made another one, trying to be extra careful and precise, it took only a few seconds more.
"I could do it blindfolded," he said.
"When you make lei, there’s a story behind them," he said. "Sometimes it’s a sad story, sometimes a happy story, sometimes it may be a pleasant story. But when I finish this lei, I find, for me, I just sit down and try to make the ends meet."