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The Kava Ceremony.
The method of preparation, distribution, and all other attendant details have been described in great detail in various places,(16,23,84,50,13,42,25,17,11) thus only an overview and descriptions of a few typical ceremonies are presented here.

Three major types of kava ceremonies can be identified: the full ceremonial as enacted on very formal occasions, such as welcoming of royalty or highly honored guests; that performed at the meeting of village elders, chiefs and nobles, and for visiting chiefs and dignitaries; and the less formal kava circle common to social occasions.

Preparation of Beverage

The main requirements for beverage preparation are the kava stock, bowl, cup, strainer, and water. Depending on the nature of the occasion, the kava would be in the form of fine roots, or roots and stems, which are then reduced to fine particles, or commercially prepared powder.

The task of preparation and distribution of the drink is normally entrusted to specific members of the community. In Samoa, these individuals are young, untitled, and unmarried men, called aumanga; in Manua, kava could be made by either girls or boys, although in the "high kava" ceremony only boys were permitted to officiate,(13) In Tonga the activities have been performed by young boys under the direction of a herald (matabule) to the chief. After the kava stock had been scraped clean, it was cut or broken into smaller pieces before being macerated into fine particles using a mortar and pestle. At present, commercially available kava, especially in the bigger cities, is mechanically ground. However, there is overwhelming evidence in the literature that in all communities where the beverage was used, kava was at one time or another chewed as a prelude to preparation of the infusion(*).

Chewing and Pounding

The chewing was normally done by young men or women(42) although there appears to be some controversy among sources as to the degree of involvement of women. Pritchard and Churchward say it was done by young girls(85,21), while Erskine found that it was the responsibility of boys.(86) According to Churchward, a man in the security of his own home might sometimes avail himself of the services of his wife, if no girls were available, but this would not be considered proper in front of strangers.(21) Even a strange girl passing by could be pressed into service.

To be selected for the task, the chewers had to have good, strong teeth and jaws, clean mouths, and be free of ailments -- e.g., coughs, colds, and sores. Before commencing their work, they rinsed their mouths, and sometimes their hands and fingers, with clean water.(85) Brown says they were supposed to chew kava without wetting it with saliva, but doubts whether they could succeed in this.(87) A test made by a Dr. Macgregor of Fiji, showed that six ounces of kava, when chewed, increased in weight to seventeen.(88) However, Mariner found it "astonishing how remarkably dry they preserve the root, while it is undergoing this process of mastication."(16) A European man, resident in Tonga long enough to have seen kava chewed, said that remarkably little saliva was mixed with the kava, and that he himself felt no difficulty in drinking kava prepared in this way.(84)

Although it was inevitable that the chewers would swallow some of the juice, they and the youths who assisted in the making were never allowed to drink the beverage after it had been prepared.(89) Undoubtedly, the chewing activity was exceedingly taxing for the mouth and jaws of the individuals concerned, so much so that "the older women who were chewers in their youth speak feelingly of the tiresome labor and great weariness of jaw incident to the older method of preparation. A desire to escape from this fatiguing duty is a traditional explanation of the old time elopement of chief's daughters."(13)

Although chewing was the prevalent method (sometimes called the "Tongan method"), there is evidence to indicate that in Fiji it was preceded by pounding or grating, called the "Fijian method."(22) According to Williams, "some old men assert that the true Fijian method of preparing the root is by grating,...but in this degenerate age the Tongan custom is almost universal (i.e., chewing)."(90) Later, Brewster wrote that in "the beginning and middle of the past century Fiji was nearly conquered by Tongan adventurers.(67) They succeeded in introducing many of their customs, and amongst them their fashion of preparing kava. The ancient Fijian way was to pound up the roots with stones." After Fiji became a British colony (in 1874), the medical officers objected to the chewing on sanitary grounds and subsequently the colonial government forbade the practice.(67,50,91) Elsewhere, similar pressures by colonizing governments and missionary influence led to the abandonment of the chewing t echnique in favor of pounding.(13)

Ceremonial Welcome

The most dignified of the kava ceremonies of welcome, called "high kava" in Fiji, is reserved for highly honored guests. These include visiting heads of state like presidents and prime ministers, the Queen of Great Britain and members of her family, and monarchs of other countries like Tonga. The following description is of a ceremony typical of Fiji.

All preparations of the site of welcome are done ahead of time. On arrival the honored guests are led to a raised platform with chairs for the guests, the main host, and his party. Visitors of exalted rank are often accompanied by a spokesperson or herald who sits on the floor next to him or her. Kava will be prepared in an area about 15-20 meters from the edge of the platform. Large mats made mainly from leaves of the screw pine or pandanus (Pandanus tectorius Sol., Fam. Pandanaceae) have been spread on the platform, in the kava preparation area, and on the path connecting the two.

The ceremony begins with the arrival of a group of young men dressed in ceremonial attire and carrying the kava bowl, the kava, and other accessories. The bowl is placed between the kava preparers and the visitors, with the suspensory lug laid out in a line pointing towards the chief guest of honor. The kava is placed in the bowl and water is poured in from a special container. Very often the ceremony is accompanied by the chanting of special kava songs. The kava maker kneads the kava; when it is considered to be ready the cup bearer picks up a cup and approaches the bowl. He squats down before the bowl with knees well apart, turns his back to the guests and holds the cup over the bowl. The kava maker soaks some of the infusion in the strainer and squeezes it into the cup. The server who is holding the cup with both hands slowly turns around on bent knees to face the visitor, walks in this mode for a few steps, then walks upright for the rest of the way. The beverage is pour ed into a cup reserved for the chief guest, who holds it with both hands and drinks from it. If the whole cup is drained without stopping, everyone says a maca (pronounced "a matha" meaning "it is empty") and clap three times with cupped hands. The cup bearer now returns to the bowl and proceeds to serve the person next in rank or importance, but without the same ceremony. At such occasions the distinguished visitor may also be presented with gifts of the whale's tooth (tabua), large kava roots, tapa cloth, fine mats, dead pigs, yams, and other crops.

Kava Ceremony in Villages

The ceremony performed in the villages has invariably been the initial act of almost all important community activities. Although less formal than that encountered at ceremonial welcomes, strict protocol still needs to be followed with the preparation and distribution of the beverages. The following describes a typical Samoan ceremony at a village council meeting to discuss the reconstruction of the village guest house which had recently been blown down by a hurricane. This account is derived from a description by Holmes.(92)

After the Chiefs and Talking Chiefs are seated on the periphery of the circular council house (such structures traditionally do not have walls) and the aumanga (the society of untitled men) has taken its position outside in tight rows, the council members are welcomed by the orator who presides over the gathering. The kava ceremony begins with the orator selecting a kava root from the many presented to him. A member of the aumanga cuts it into small pieces and pounds it into pulp using a stone mortar and pestle reserved for this purpose. Meanwhile, other aumanga members wash a multi-legged wooden kava bowl and bring clusters of cups filled with cool, fresh water.

An air of reverence prevails while the preparations are being made. Chiefs speak in whispers and no one smokes. At a location near the back of the council house, some aumanga members position the kava bowl and sit behind it, with a kava maker in the center. The kava powder is placed at the bottom of the bowl, which is then half filled with water. The fibrous strainer made of hibiscus bark is laid over the kava, which is then collected into it. The strainer with the kava in it is raised above the bowl and wrung dry of the infusion three times. The entire process is repeated two more times. The pulp-filled strainer is now thrown out of the house to a waiting strainer cleaner who removes the kava pulp by several snaps of the strainer. It is then thrown back into the house and the steeping process is repeated until most of the kava residue has been removed. A generous stream of kava is now showered down from the strainer into the bowl to allow the chiefs to judge if the kava requir es more water. If not, then it is announced that the kava is ready and the assembled chiefs clap their hands, not as applause, but for protocol.

The order in which the kava is served is of vital social significance. The Chief of highest traditional rank drinks first, then the highest ranking Talking Chief. The cup is then passed to the second ranking Chief, the second ranking Talking Chief, and so on down the elite hierarchy.(92)

Informal Kava Drinking

By its very nature, informal or secular kava sessions have no set procedures or rituals to be followed, and depend on the circumstances of the occasion and the whim of the group participating. However, some factors always play a prominent role. For instance, the sacred nature of the beverage warrants that its preparation and use are always done with respect and its distribution is more often than not preceded by the pouring of a libation. Traditionally, tanoas (ceremonial kava bowls) have been used as mixing bowls. Recently, however, basins and even plastic buckets started replacing them, and this led to a sharp rebuke from some chiefs in Fiji.(93)

Although kava parties may be used to resolve less amicable situations, such as conflict and enmity, their major role undoubtedly is to serve as a social "mixer." Typically participants gather at a house or outside, sitting cross-legged in a circle around a kava bowl,with the kava maker at the head of the circle. Someone pounds the kava, which is then mixed with water in the bowl according to traditional procedures but without much ceremony. Often a bark strainer is used to separate out the debris. When a piece of cloth is used as a strainer, it is spread out and the dry kava powder placed in it before immersion into the water. When ready, the kava is served in a coconut cup, proceeding clockwise or counterclockwise around the circle. No precedence is followed unless someone of importance is present. Serving is anticipated for each individual by clapping of hands of the others in the circle. The server then waits patiently in front of each drinker until he has finished. Drinkers usually utter some stylized salutation, then down the contents in one draughty.(51) Such kava parties may be held in the afternoon, or even in the morning, but most frequently they begin in the early evening and continue until late at night or even the next morning.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Yadhu N. Singh and Mark Blumenthal