Volume 89 1980 > Volume 89, No. 1 > Informal kava drinking in Tonga, by Harry Feldman, p 101-104
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During the past several decades the kava ceremony in Tonga has received a great deal of attention. Anthropologists have focused upon the form of the ceremony, on its origin and distribution through the Pacific, and on its psychological function as a symbol of Tonga's intricate social stratification (Bott 1972; Collocott 1927; Leach 1972; and Newell 1947). Finally, in 1967 Edwin Lemert published a paper dealing with the use of kava outside the formal ‘ilo kava and taumafa kava rituals. But Lemert's interests led him to concentrate upon the phenomenon of dependence or habituation to kava drinking without sufficient discussion of the social contexts and mechanisms of the faikava.

It will be useful to distinguish two main contexts for kava drinking: the private faikava and the kalapu kava-Tonga ‘kava club’. In each case we will make further distinctions as we progress. A private faikava is private only in the sense that a specific person or group of people initiates it by providing the kava and, ordinarily, requesting the services of an eligible young woman as tou'a ‘mixer’. A kalapu is not private in the sense that the kalapu provides the kava and anyone is welcome to drink for a charge.

The private faikava has two main functions: as a part of the courtship ritual and as a social gathering. But while all faikava are social gatherings, not all involve courtship. Whatever the specific function of the faikava, the procedure of preparing and distributing the kava is much the same.

One of the men sitting next to the tou'a will pound the kava roots between two stones, letting the pounded kava fall into a fala ‘mat’ about one metre square on his lap. The rocks are a black volcanic type brought from the remote island of Tofua. The larger of the rocks rests on the mat. It has a flat top and weighs about four kg. The smaller one is used as a pounder and weighs about 500g. A sheet of plastic is often substituted for the mat. The fibres of the root separate and crumble after a few minutes of pounding. (The kava is usually air dried for a week or more before use, but if the supply of dry kava is exhausted quickly, the drinkers may substitute green kava. Green kava has a slightly different flavour from dry kava, it is somewhat easier to pound, and causes minor unpleasant side-effects like nausea or headache in some users.)

When the roots have been reduced to sufficiently small pieces, the pounder will pour them from the mat either into a cloth sack or direct into the kumete ‘kava bowl’. The kumete is a wide shallow bowl, usually unadorned, with four or more legs and a loop of rope to hang it up. They range in diameter from about 40cm to over a metre.

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If the tou'a is using a sack, she will simply tie the open end and either she herself, the pounder, or the man sitting on her other side will pour in a few cups of water. She then proceeds to knead the sack for two or three minutes until there is a strong infusion. Then someone will pour more water into the kava bowl, usually cup by cup, while the tou'a continues to knead. She periodically brings the sack completely out of the bowl and wrings it so the drinkers may see its colour. When they are satisfied with the strength of the kava, she removes the sack and shakes its contents on to the mat. Each of the men sitting next to her takes an empty cup made of a polished coconut-shell half and holds it over the kava bowl while the tou'a pours the liquid in from a similar cup. The cups pass hand-to-hand around the circle until they reach the participants sitting farthest from the bowl. One always drains one's cup without removing it from the lips. When the cup is empty, the drinker pours the drops remaining on the bottom into an ashtray, usually a bivalve-shell half or an empty tin, and either passes the cup back hand-to-hand or tosses it towards the kava bowl so that it spins on its point. The process is repeated until everyone who wants to has drunk. The tou'a periodically stirs the infusion with her cup to ensure its consistency. Each drinker specifies verbally how full he wants his cup each time he is served. Hand clapping, one clap for a half-cup, two for a full cup, as in the formal kava ceremony, has a humorous effect in the context of an informal faikava.

When a sack is not used, the tou'a uses as a strainer a bundle of fibres from the fau ‘hibiscus’ plant, about one metre in length, but folded in half to strain out the particles in the infusion. Serving is the same as with a sack except that instead of dipping out the kava with a cup, the tou'a wrings it into cups out of the hibiscus fibre strainer.

When the kava bowl is empty the pounder repounds the damp kava shaken out of the sack or strainer. This procedure may be repeated as many as four times with the same kava.

If the purpose of the faikava is courtship, the tou'a is always the girl whom a participant is courting. In any case, the tou'a should be an unmarried woman who has finished school. She may not ordinarily be tuofefine'aki to any of the drinkers, i.e., she cannot be his sister or close cousin. In a small village a group of men can often spend much of the evening trying to find an appropriate tou'a (see Rogers 1978).

Until fairly recently if a Tongan boy wanted to date a Tongan girl he would use the following procedure. He would approach a trusted friend to act as his representative or moa 'uli ‘dirty chicken’. The moa 'uli would ask the intended girl to make kava for himself and some friends. If he was trustworthy he would declare his friend's love to the tou'a and say complimentary things in his behalf while the rest of the group sang love songs. Nowadays the moa'uli is usually dispensed with; the suitor makes his own declarations of love.

Men often prepare and drink kava without the services of a female tou'a. Although I have been calling these contexts “private faikava”, they are not usually closed in any way to late-comers, particularly if they bring their own kava.

The kalapu kava-Tonga also manifests itself in two distinct ways. An ordinary kava club has a membership and is open at least a few nights per week, often - 103 every night. (Because of the prohibition on business on Sunday, clubs do not open until midnight Sunday.) Non-members are always welcome. Some clubs have singing teams that enter the annual national singing competitions. The club has its own building, frequently constructed entirely of coconut timber and thatch.

As often as not, a regular club will have no female tou'a. Its ambience is very relaxed. As in a private faikava where the object is not courtship, participants talk and sing, play guitars, the radio, or card games. The kava is pounded in quantity in a metal cylinder about 10cm in diameter and 50 cm high using a long metal rod weighing about 10kg as a pounder. It is mixed in a large plastic pail and transferred to the kava bowl with smaller buckets. Some clubs charge an entrance fee which entitles one to drink until the kava runs out or the club closes at dawn or later. Others charge for each bucket poured into the kava bowl. Tongan has borrowed the word saute from New Zealand English “shout” for the procedure where each person in turn buys a bucket of kava for the entire group. (This same procedure is followed at the underground hopi clubs where hopi ‘homebrew’ is served.)

Churches and schools often raise money by holding a fund-raising kalapu from time to time, usually once a month. The kava is prepared in large quantities as in the ordinary club. But there are invariably at least five kava circles simultaneously in a very large room at such an event. Each group has a female tou'a who may, in this case, still be a student. The circles take turns singing songs. There is usually a prize for the tou'a of the group that contributes the largest amount of money in the course of the evening, often a pig or a cake.

In terms of formality we may class ordinary private faikava with regular clubs, and courting faikava with fund-raising clubs. The latter pair tend to be slightly more formal in the range of acceptable activities and in the necessity of a female tou'a. I attribute this greater formality to the goal-directedness of such gatherings.

  • BOTT, Elizabeth, 1972. “Psychoanalysis and Ceremony,” in J. S. LaFontaine (ed.), The Interpretation of Ritual, London, Tavistock, pp. 205-37.
  • COLLOCOTT, E. E. V., 1927. “Kava Ceremonial in Tonga.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 36: 21-47.
  • LEACH, Edmund, 1972. “The Structure of Symbolism,” in J. S. LaFontaine (ed.), The Interpretation of Ritual, London, Tavistock, pp. 239-75.
  • LEMERT, Edwin, 1967. “Secular Use of Kava in Tonga.” Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 28: 328-41.
  • NEWELL, W. H., 1947. “Kava Ceremony in Tonga.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 56: 364-417.
  • ROGERS, Garth, 1978. “ ‘The Father's Sister is Black’ : A Consideration of Female Rank and Powers in Tonga.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 86: 157-82.

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