At Kepaniwai Park, on the narrow forest floor that snakes through Maui’s ‘Iao Valley, Kaponoai Molitau is weaving a lei of la‘i. He handles the leaves with finesse as they succumb to his measured pulls and twists.
Molitau, who is kumu hula of Halau Na Hanona Kulike ‘o Pi‘ilani, talks of the connection between la‘i and hula— a connection that goes back to antiquity. The goddess Laka was keeper of the hula tradition and also held dominion over forest plants. Her affinity for ki is evidenced by the plant’s frequent presence on Laka altars and by its use as hula attire. “Wearing la‘i,” confirms Molitau, “heightens your sense of awareness with the dance.”
Given its relative fragility compared with raffia or hau, braiding la‘i is one of the more challenging feats in the lei-making repertoire; mastering it, Molitau says, is a sign that a student is well underway. Regardless of skill level, though, working with la‘i requires both concentration and positive energy, because the leaf absorbs the ‘ano, or disposition, of the person working with it. “If you’re not makaukau [prepared] and you’re making your lei,” Molitau says, “your lei will come out the way you feel. If you’re feeling really junk, it will come out junk.” He chuckles. “And your kumu will know that you’ve had a rough day.”
Molitau must be in a good mood; his lei today is a study in symmetrical beauty. After he’s pau (finished), as we sit by a Hawaiian hale (house) in the park, Molitau fixes his gaze on a row of young ki. He crosses to the plants and gently caresses a burgeoning leaf. As so often happens with this plant, which evokes such deep memories and emotions, he’s reminded of a coming-of-age story.
Twenty years ago when he graduated to kumu hula, Molitau recalls, his teacher and adoptive father, the legendary hula teacher John Lake, gave him a mu‘o, the tender shoot at the tip of a ki, and told him to make sure it didn’t die. Growing the plant from its mu‘o, Molitau reminds me, is more challenging than growing it from a cutting. “I placed it in wet moss and watched and cared for it,” he recalls. From that one mu‘o, ten generations of ki now flourish in his yard. He uses those ki to teach his students of the plant’s importance. “Our kupuna give us the mu‘o,” he says, “and out of that unfurls a new leaf of knowledge that generations of others will get the opportunity to learn from. It’s amazing.”