Lei: Weaving Ancient into the Modern
Lei, the beautiful expression of Hawaiian culture itself, a physical manifestation of ancient knowledge and expression woven in a timeless bond of aloha, is about to take center stage once again at the Merrie Monarch Festival. See all the hues of the rainbow, bold and subtle textures, delicate blooms, lacy ferns, and shiny shells all intricately woven or sewn into almost every type of lei. In less than a week, we will witness an abundance of lei both traditional and modern, fashioned to adorn the kumu and their hula dancers as they take the stage.These lei make for the perfect eye candy for any lei lover and will truly inspire you to learn more about this art form.
History of Lei
Lei is one of the many native Hawaiian practices that have survived into the modern day. This art form arrived in Hawai’i with the earliest of Polynesian voyagers and is deeply associated with all aspects of Hawaiian life. Lei were worn from the most elite royalty to the common farmer and fisherman. While some lei were fashioned to signify rank and wealth, others were simply made to express joy.
This beautiful art of lei is as boundless as the aloha it is intended to express.
Traditionally, a lei was created as an offering to one of the numerous revered akua (gods/goddesses). Specific lei materials, whether flower or foliage, known as kino lau, were considered physical manifestations of that akua and were specifically sought and used in the lei that was offered. When gathering, especially kino lau, the lei maker was required to recite chants to honor the akua and ask for permission to gather. These cultural protocols continue to exist today.
Lei is also commonly seen adorning hula dancers. When presenting traditional hula, there are strict rules on the selection of materials and the style used to make the lei. Like the lei for religious offerings, lei used in traditional dance use kino lau as well. The materials gathered are considered the embodiment of the akua and expert dancers or ‘ølapa that go through the cultural protocols to adorn themselves with these materials are known to transform in dance to become a representation of the kinolau of the honored akua.
More commonly, lei are gifted to express aloha to the recipient, to honor someone for their achievments, or simply to adorn someone to express joy. In this regard, cultural protocol of asking permission to gather and weaving only the best of intentions in the lei are still present. This is because the recipient is not only receiving an adornment of beautiful flowers and foliage, but the mana (power/essence) of the materials and all involved in the process of making the lei.
So, if you get a chance to watch the Merrie Monarch Hula Competition next week, pay attention to all the different lei that will be present. Traditional lei and lei materials will be present in kahiko performances and more modern lei during the ‘auana performances. Lei will also be seen adorning announcers, musicians, and the audience. Tune in to feast your eyes on the beauty of lei, be transferred in time by the beating of the drums, be entranced by the swaying movements of the dancers, be serenaded by the musicians and their heavenly voices, and celebrate with us the beauty of Hawaiian culture.