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An Account of Samoan History up to 1918

Kava: its ceremonial use

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Kava: its ceremonial use.

The ceremonies at which kava is partaken of are many and varied and the drinking of it at native functions is common to most of the Polynesian Islands of the Pacific as well as to many of the Melanesian and Micronesian Groups. Where and why the custom of Kava drinking first originated is shrouded in mystery, and the legends and myths that have been built up around it are insufficient in basal truths to warrant a definite opinion being given as to its initiatory use. Some of the stories relative to the introduction of the custom will be related at the end of this article, and it is left to the reader to satisfy himself as to where and why the practice began.

Before attempting to describe the various ceremonies in which kava plays a part, it should be understood that until recent years, the drinking of kava was always a serious matter, or perhaps one should say a solemn act. It was not a beverage that was on tap for every thirsty soul to freely partake of without due deference being shown for the ceremony that was inseparable from its legitimate use. The breaking down, or abolition, or weakening power of the Samoan ritual and customs as a result of contact with Europeans has materially lessened the solemnity of the ceremony as it is witnessed today, and it is correspondingly more difficult for the European mind to gauge the real significance underlying the outward manifestation of mental convictions as held by the Samoans. One can perhaps better interpret the significance of the ceremony if is compared with the supernaturalism inseparable from some of our own sacerdotal systems. The belief in, and fear of, a spirit or spirits, was common to the Samoans and the first offering of kava before being imbibed, was to the Gods. In this twentieth century much of the ceremony and solemnity has departed from the act of kava making and drinking, and many of the younger generation of Samoa do, but hazily, realise what an important and suggestive ceremony kava drinking was. Much kava is now imbibed by Europeans and by also/Samoans merely as a beverage and in many stores and offices one may find a full bowl for the use of those thirsty souls who believe that frequent drinking in the Tropics is necessary and who prefer kava to plain water when they cannot procure something stronger.

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It may be stated that no constitutive gathering, no important undertaking, no valediction, no consequential ceremony, no momentous event whether pleasurable or otherwise, no trial by oath, is complete and worthy the name without the kava ceremony.

The plant or shrub from the root of which kava is made (Piper Methysticum) grows to a maximum height of about seven feet, the majority of specimens being much less. It usually has several stems springing direct from the roots. The leaves are flat and roughly heart-shaped and in colour resemble somewhat the leaf of the mulberry. The rough sketch of the plant attached hereto will give the reader an idea of the appearance of the plant. The Samoan word for both the plant and the drink manufactured therefrom is 'Ava, although at some distant date before the letter “K” was dropped from the language it was termed “Kava” by which name it is universally recognised by Europeans. The stems and roots of the plant are of a loose character are and the roots from which the drink is made are carefully cleaned and scraped. It is obligatory on each family to grow a supply of kava and as a general rule a number of small pieces of the root, about six or seven inches long, are planted together in ground that is sufficiently supplied with water. When fully grown, the roots vary considerably in size and with a section of the stem of the plant attached resemble roughly, a club. A root of kava in the vernacular of the natives is “A'a 'ava”, the first word meaning root. When the kava roots are being cleaned and after they have been hung up in the sun and dried, they are usually suspended from a part of the house under cover, where they will not be handled by the children.

The bowl in which the drink is prepared is called a “tanoa” or “laulau. The former word is the more frequently used. The bowls vary in size from twelve to thirty inches and they stand on short rounded legs varying in number from four to twentyfour. The value of a bowl commercially is based on the number of legs and the class of wood used, the average price being three to four shillings per leg. It is unusual to find a bowl that has a greater depth than six inches and the majority are perhaps not more than three or four inches deep. A brim of a width varying according to the size of the page 3 bowl runs round the top of the tanea and a flange or sometimes a projecting piece of the original wood is left under the bowl. This is pierced by a hole through which a piece of “afa” (native sinnet) is threaded for suspending the bowl from a house post. The natives are, nowadays, with the aid of European tools, enabled to make the bowls very symmetrical, and with less difficulty add to the number of legs. Before the coming of the European the Samoans state that the usual number of legs was three or four and that the bowls were less shapely and did not show such a clean finish. This can be easily understood when it is remembered that there was even very little hard stone in the country. Considering that even at the present time the number and variety of tools used in the manufacture of Tanoa is few, and that all the work is done by hand, the bowls are models of woodcraft and suggest to the uninformed that they have been turned by machinery. The wood usually used is obtained from the Ifilele tree and it is a hard grained timber of a reddish brown colour. A piece of timber of roughly the diameter of the bowl to be made is selected, and by patient hacking and cutting the wood is reduced to the desired shape. In earlier times the cutting and shaping was done with the aid of stone tools and a pigs tusk was utilised in the scraping. The desired smoothness was acquired by constant rubbing with a kind of pumice stone. When the bowl was finished it was soaked in fresh water for a considerable time to remove the woody smell. Kava often was also allowed to remain indefinitely in the tanoa in order that the inside might acquire that enamelled appearance so dearly beloved of the Samoan. This enamel or sheen is called “tane.” In earlier bowls the legs were tapered towards the botton and reduced there to about a half an inch in diameter. The accompanying sketch will illustrate a bowl of the present period and also one of an earlier date much better than any description can do. There is no ceremony when the bowl is used for the first time and chiefs and orators, high and low, use the same type of tanoa. At ceremonies, the bowl used is that belonging to the chief or orator at whose house the ceremony is being held. The only time when a special bowl is used is when what is termed “King's Kava” is being presented. This is a highly ceremonious matter and will be described later on. On these occasions a special page 4 bowl, the property of a certain village or District is used. The name given to the bowl used for the King's Kava is “Tanoa a le Tupu.” King's Kava bowl.)

The cup used for distributing the kava is made from the half shell of a ripe cocoanut and it is cleaned and polished. It is sometimes ornamented with different designs, and since the coming of the European is sometimes found inlaid with silver. When not in use it is hung up from or deposited upon the rack or shelf built across the centre posts of the house. The Samoan name for this cup is “tauau.” Originally, the water for mixing with the kava was contained in one or more cocoanut shells. The kernel of the nut was removed by filling the nut with salt water. The action of the sea water on the meat of the nut was to dissolve the same and the more or less viscid contents were poured out through the three holes in the end of the nut. Repeated rinsing with fresh water thoroughly cleansed the inside. Two nuts thus treated and tied together with native sinnet which was run through the holes in the nuts were termed “taulua” (two tau.) When not in use these nuts were suspended from the centre pole of the house.

The material for straining the woody fibre when the kava was being prepared is obtained from the bark of the “Fall” tree. This bark is stripped off and the outer skin removed. The remaining skin is then shredded and forms a kind of baste.

The kava is actually prepared by a member or members of what is termed the “Aumaga” (kava makers). It is customary for the daughters of all chiefs to be taught how to prepare the kava. In the preparation of kava for a ceremony the services of one young lady or one young man, or one or more young ladies and young men may be utilised. Before being vetoed by the Missionaries, it was customary for the dried kava root to be masticated by one or more of the members of the “Aumaga”. Those chosen for this work were possessed of clean mouths and good teeth and they were required to thoroughly rinse out their mouths before commencing their duty. It was possibly the most disliked part of the work and produced great tiredness of the jaws. When the kava had been sufficiently chewed it was spewed out on to the leaf of a banana or breadfruit or taro and carried and deposited in the kava bowl.

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The kava mixer seated behind the bowl knead[gap — reason: unclear] and thoroughly mixed the chewed kava as another member of the Aumaga adds water from time to time. Nowadays a bucket is usually used to hold the required water. At the present time the kava is pounded into a semi powder between two stones or other hard surfaces instead of being chewed. At ceremonies the kava mixer is usually the virgin daughter of a chief (Taupo) or the son of a chief. As the mixing proceeds, the kava maker from time to time wrings the liquid from the strainer and folding the same into half its usual length passes it to another who standing outside or near the edge of the house, frees the strainer of the woody particles of the kava by several violent flicks. He then passes the strainer back to the mixer who proceeds as heretofore until all the particles of wood are removed. The water poured into the bowl as the mixing proceeds is done from either the left or right, not from in front. The action of mixing is one of contracting and expanding the fingers of the two hands as the strainer is slowly worked towards the mixer. When the mixing is completed the rim of the bowl is wiped to remove any water or woody material and the strainer is folded up and placed on the rim of the bowl. The mixer then places both hands on the bowl and sits quietly awaiting the next move. Kava mixers (Aumaga) always sit at the back of the house which is that side or part of the house farthest removed from the road running through the village. If made on the malae (open space in the village.) the same position is kept in relation to the roadway. There is no ceremony attached to the bringing into a house of a kava bowl. The Aumaga (or kava makers) is, at the present time, a rather comprehensive term, but in former times the kava makers were a much more select guild. There is no rule governing the strength of the kava. If the root is plentiful, the drink is naturally made several degrees stronger than if it is in short supply. During the process of making the kava or just when the manufacture is completed, an orator will call out “O le agatonu lena o le fesilafaiga i le afio mai o le malaga fesilafa'i e lenei nu'u ua usi nei o le a faasoa a e tula'i se Tautu. (This is the kava of the reception to our visitors who we now meet in our village-it is ready and will be distributed now and the kava server will stand up.) The words vary according to the individual who says them page 6 and the reason for the ceremony. All those assembled then clap their hands loudly and slowly. The distribution of the kava then takes place, and each individual is called in turn by an orator. Occasionally the kava may be called by the son of a chief if he has shown that he is thoroughly conversant with the correct procedure. The first person to receive the kava is the highest chief of the visiting party, and he is followed by the highest chief of the entertaining village. The leading orator of the visiting party is then served followed by the leading orator of the village and so on. No taulelea (young men) or women are served. The man who calls out the kava titles is termed the “Tufaava” (kava divider.) and he indicates who is to receive the kava by mentioning the individual's “kava title.” The kava title is a name or names bestowed only on chiefs and the manner and reason for such bestowals is described later on. The man who actually carries and hands the drinking cup to the chiefs assembled is termed the “Tautuava”. (kava distributor.) He stands alongside the kava bowl and the maker of the kava after dipping the fau into the liquid raises it with both hands and rings a quantity of the slightly greenish brew into the kava cup held in the right hand of the Tautuava. The server then listens for the call from the Tufaava and is thus apprised of the correct individual to be served. He then advances towards the person indicated keeping his left hand with the palm outwards firmly lodged in the small of his back. Immediately he hears the kava title called and is aware of the standing of the individual named, he, if the chief to be served is the holder of an important title, raises the cup above his head and advances towards the chief. When the server is within comfortable reaching distance of the chief to be served, he with a graceful sweeping movement from right to left and with the inner side of the forearm presented to the chief, hands him the cup. Presentation to lesser chiefs takes the same form except that the cup is not held above the head but is extended at arms length at about the height of the waist. The back of the hand is presented to Orators when being handed the kava cup. Both these motions and attitudes are indicative of respect. At all formal gatherings of chiefs and orators there are definitely defined places in the houses where each shall page 7 at each end of a house sit. The middle posts/termed “matua Tala” are reserved for the leading chiefs and the side posts on the front section termed “Pou o le pepe” are occupied by the Orators. The posts at the back of the house “talatua” indicate the positions maintained by the servants, kava makers etc.

Objections are quickly raised if a chief or orator is served out of turn as it is considered and affront by the man who should have received the cup and serious disputes have frequently arisen as a result of careless or deliberately wrong distribution.

On the kava cup being presented to a chief he takes it in his right hand and after a moments pause he spills a few drops on to the floor of the house on his right side at the same time speaking a few words in a low tone. Today these words have some Christian significance but in olden times were no doubt a form of prayer to one of the numerous Gods. He then raises the cup and says “Ia manuia” which means be happy or prosperous. He then drinks a varying quantity of the kava and throws any remainder over his shoulder. He then hands the cup back to the tautuava. Should he not desire to drink the kava he may take a mouthful and then spew it out, or he may merely touch the cup held in the hand of the bearer or he may take hold of the cup and holding it out in front of him address a few remarks to the assembly, finally exclaiming “Ia manuia.” In earlier days the orators always held the cup in both hands when it was presented to them. This custom is very often disregarded nowadays. It would be interesting to record the exact words used in earlier days when the libation was poured out to the family God, but although efforts have been made to identify them, the words me given/are so obviously tinged with Christian teaching that they are of little value as a record.

It should have been mentioned in connection with the act of drinking the kava, that when the recipient of the cup calls out “ia manuia” the assembly reply “Ia manuia” or soifua, the latter word meaning “may you live”. The act of throwing by the drinker of the remainder of the contents of the cup over his shoulder mmay have been an unspoken desire that all misfortune should likewise disappear as it is noted that unconsumed kava is never returned to the bowl.

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The spilling of a few drops of kava on the floor before drinking the would seem to have the same significance as do many of the ceremonies in/the various religions of the world - incense burning - sprinkling of holy water - offering libations of wine - and the offering of sacrifices varying from pound notes to lizards eggs - all are offered with the idea of placating or seeking the assistance of some God. We are apt, perhaps, to view the custom of the Samoan as being merely the prostration of the intellect at the thresh-hold of the unknown, but are not all sacrifices by whomsoever offered, just this.

Orators as a class have ne kava titles and when the cup is offered to them the kava caller merely announces “This is the cup of so and so.”

When all have been served, the tufaava calls out “Ua moto le ava, mativa le fau, papa'u le tanoa, faasoa i tua nei ena tee. (A little kava remains, there is not much for the strainer to absorb, the kava in the bowl is shallow - the remainder will be divided amongst those at the back of the house.

If all the kava has been consumed before minor chiefs have been served they must go without, but if chiefs of importance happen along, a fresh brew is made and the ceremony is repeated. There are many variations in the ceremony and long and tiresome speeches may be made at different intervals. The orator officiating may meander on indefinitely as he assigns each drink, or those declining the drink may talk at length - in fact it is permissible for everyone to speak for as long as he desires.

If no one but a chief and his family are present when kava is made he dispenses with ceremony and as a rule nowadays merely quaffs the drink. page break page break
Ole Ava

Ole Ava