The increasingly overwhelming presence of kava bars in the U.S.—particularly in the greater Tampa Bay Area—may be a relatively new phenomenon; however, the kava bar itself is anything but new. Just as kava has an important history, so does the kava bar.
Kava is No Ordinary Drink and Vanuatu’s is No Ordinary Kava
The Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu is comprised of a chain of remote islands floating between the Solomon Islands and Fiji. To some it may be a secret, but those who know kava know (or ought to know) Vanuatu. In addition to boasting beautiful turquoise waters and pristine coral reefs, Vanuatu boasts the strongest and most potent kava beverages.
Kava beverages brewed from Vanuatuan rootstock are reputed to “yield the strongest physiological effect of any Pacific varieties.” Practices there vary slightly from other parts of the Pacific resulting in a beverage that produces a high concentration of kavalactones. Traditionally and historically, status hierarchies permeated kava drinking culture with certain forms of kava being exclusively consumed by certain families. Moreover, the most potent kava is “thought to possess sacred powers and allow communion with the gods.” As such, for about 100 years (1880-1980), drinking kava was banned in Vanuatu largely due to the presence of Christian missionaries in the area. Banning kava was seen as an attempt “to eliminate competition with other gods.”
The Emergence of the Kava Bar in the Pacific Islands
Once Vanuatu gained independence in 1980, kava drinking became legalized once again and was vigorously resumed. Commercial kava bars or “nakamals” have since been popping up across Vanuatu. By 6pm, a large number of townspeople settle themselves in bamboo-walled, tin-roofed shelters busying themselves with buying and drinking kava. Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, have more than 60 nakamals. These kava bars are quite the departure from one you might find in the USA as the Vanuatuan version are usually dark and spartan wooden shacks. They are reportedly full of “shadowy figures sit[ting] slumped on rough, wooden benches” where kava is “scooped out of a bucket from behind a makeshift counter in the counter.” Tradition dictates that the kava is consumed in one go, outside, and with your back turned to the nakamal. It is believed that this way, you can “listen to the kava alone.” One shell costs less than a dollar, there is little to no conversation, and the mood is somber.
Fitting Kava Bars into Existing Health Regulations
In New Caledonia—a French territory comprising dozens of islands in the South Pacific—nakamals started to appear in the early 1990s beginning a “kava craze” that continues to today. The nakamals are closely monitored by local authorities, investors, and health officials. Health officials have stressed that “respecting Oceanian culture does not mean that basic hygiene rules must be disregarded” and insisted that nakamals needed to comply with existing health regulations by 2002. Nouméa’s Health and Sanitation Department head at the time Dr. Pierre Bacqué stated that “The kava shells (from which consumers drink one after the other) are only rinsed in water of dubious cleanliness. The equipment used to crush the kava is not always well cleaned. In a word, intoxication risks are real” going on to advocate for better hygiene “ through proper washing of the shells, clean crushing equipment, decent public toilet facilities nearby and running water.” He also clarified that “We're not asking them to put tiles everywhere on the floor. But after all, nakamals are public drinking establishments, like other bars, so they, too, must respect the existing legislation.” There are approximately 100 nakamals, or kava bars, in the capital and it has become a very lucrative business.
The “Nakamal Way” of Governance
The Nakamal in Vanuatu brings people together. In a Pacific Island context, “all paths converge on the Nakamal” and it also symbolized “three distinct and separate places: the meetinghouse for the whole community; the sacred men’s house, and the women’s sacred dwelling place. There is now a contemporary and urban Nakamal “where people from various horizons meet quietly, drink kava, exchange information and discuss public issues.
Messages of governance and “sustainable development” are relevant globally but have been especially targeted to the so-called developing world. Because these messages may be imposed on those regions by bodies who do not actually understand the context in which they are imposing them, these concepts can end up being “absorbed and ‘recycled’ by Pacific island governments and administrations” proving to be “only and empty, ‘flavor of the month” that is “used by Pacific officials as and when deemed necessary to satisfy aid donors.” When this is the case, the concept of governance—as it is understood in a Western context—only affects Pacific Islands’ relations with outside countries and “will not provoke fundamental or far-reaching changes on how Pacific societies actually govern themselves.” In order for governance to be useful to the Pacific Islands, a type appropriate to their concept needs to be curated rather than some Western formulation of it imposed on them. An article on governance in Vanuatu from the Australian National University articulated that ways of dealing with governance in Vanuatu and developing an appropriate form of governance involved developing the “Nakamal way.”
Kava Bars, Social Policies, and Nationalism
The Vanuatuan government promotes kava planting, export, and drinking not only because of kava’s importance as a lucrative cash crop but also because of kava’s promise as an alternative to alcohol. This government support is evident through policies such as the relatively low fees for nakamal business licenses (and substantial taxes on imported alcohol).
Many people in Vanuatu and elsewhere have “renounced alcohol for kava.” This is an exchange that has been supported because kava can act as a major muscle relaxant “inducing the feelings of relaxed sociability and a delicate emotional serenity” but unlike alcohol does not influence clarity of thinking nor is it a hallucinogen.
The economic value and potential of kava is massive largely due to the increasing number of kava bars. Furthermore, there are technologies developing to produce a spray-dried kava powder or instant kava that can be flavored, sweetened, and packaged. The commodification and commercialization of kava has not passed without opposition, however, where one user commented, “Sir, I'm a man who drinks kava frequently in Vila but I'm upset to see that a middleman who purchases kava on Tanna to sell in Vila doesn't think about the kava he sells in stores in plastic or net bags.... It's wrong for some of us to be irresponsible in the kava business! Please don't follow the bad practices of other countries in kava business, because kava is the produce of Vanuatu and there is a spirit in it.”
In Vanuatu’s outer islands, many people continue to drink kava in a more traditional ritualized manner. But in the capital, “there has been a brisk transformation of kava from sacred substance to recreational drug.” Ironically, this “commodification of kava and the drug's shift from gift to market economy” occurred alongside kava’s reiteration as a “conspicuous emblem of Vanuatu’s tradition and identity.” An exert from Cultural Survival reads that, “In local political discourse and ceremony, kava drinking has come to stand for the value and endurance of island kastom - the distinctive traditions that politicians like to evoke in order to foster sentiments of national unity and identity. People in Vanuatu today are debating kava's contrary functions: traditional sacred substance on the one hand, and cash crop and contemporary political icon on the other.”
Pacific Island politicians have taken note of the “spirit” of kava utilizing it to fashion a discourse of national unity and identity. When Vanuatu gained its independence, kava drinking was “revived as a symbol of ni-Vanuatu identity” where it has been encouraged as a “way of reinforcing the islands’ ancient traditions.” As such, kava now stands for “kastom”—shared Vanuatuan tradition that bolsters sentiments of identity and unity. Nationalism and kava appear intertwined in other instances including a kava bowl being featured on Samoan currency and the presence of kava in contemporary political ceremonies such as the opening of Parliament, the welcoming of foreign ambassadors, and the celebration of independence day. Even several tour companies serving Vanuatu claim to offer overseas visitors an experience of island kastom also sell excursions to the kava nakamals.
The importance of kava bars throughout history and their role as a transformative agent will be continued on in the subsequent kava conversation.
End of Part 1