Movie: Kumete Kava (Kava Bowl)

Eseta Aholelei talks about Kava and sings part of a Tongan Kava ceremony

© Australian Museum and Eseta Aholelei
Finton Mahony
Eseta Aholelei


This is a traditional Tongan kava bowl, and you can tell that by the four legs. Most - you’ll find that some kava bowls have six, eight, or several legs, and they’re usually from Fiji or Samoa. And this is [fual]. It’s labelled as a kava strainer and it’s hibiscus bark fibre, from the inner bark of the hibiscus, and that’s what’s used to strain the kava, in preparation of the kava.

The traditional kava ceremony is a long ceremony, it can take up to seven hours, for example, for installation of a title, or for the king. And preparation of the kava is usually performed in dance and in certain movements. Kava is usually - is prepared traditionally by people from Kolovai which is a village in the west of Tonga. And these are - these people - the Kolovai are traditionally the keepers or protectors of the Tongan royal family, and so that’s why they’re allowed to prepare the kava.

I was - in the dance form, though it’s still preferable for people from Kolovai to perform it, but it can be anybody really, it’s not restricted. And I learned this dance about 10 years ago, I performed the [milla loua], it’s called the [milla loua]. Usually the [tanoa] will face the server, and it’s sitting down on the floor. So I’ll just perform just a short part of it.

[Song performed in Tongan]

Kava is a root of a plant, it has a calming effect. Usually if you drink it, it can numb the tongue, but it’s not very potent, at least in the Tongan form it’s not very potent. So the kava is pounded. That’s the action that I was doing pounding, [tatuki]. And then it is placed in the bowl. Then water is added. So I was asking the [doas], the people beside me to add water, and they would add water. And then [ballo], so you then use the [fau], place the cover inside the [fau], and you would I guess work the kava so that the strength will come out in the water. And then it’s strained. So you then gather the [fau] and you squeeze the kava. And usually if it’s served that’s how you would strain it as well, you would strain it into - someone will place a coconut shell, which is the cup, and then you’d squeeze the kava into that, and then it would be served.

This kava bowl has obviously been repaired. There’s been a crack in the bowl, which is - which can be common, I mean it’s made of wood. And usually if kava bowls are not used for some time they become more brittle and tend to crack, so it’s always best to - you’ll find if someone doesn’t use the bowl they’ll leave a little bit of water or liquid in the bottom so that the wood remains swollen. And it’s been repaired with coconut husk fibre. I’m not sure if there’s something to be used as a sealant, but it’s not evident that it has been. Yeah, and I’d think that you’d be able to use the bowl, and it shouldn’t drip if it’s - for example, if you put some water in that overnight it would swell up and the crack would be sealed.

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Tags kumete, kava, ceremony, ritual, eseta, finton, bowl, tongan, pacific, wood, intangible,