The Kava Bowl Connection - Fiji and the George Harrison Guitars
Tuesday August 21, 2001
6:00 PM – It was almost dark when we made our way along the wooden path leading to the pool area and the dining room at Lomalagi Resort, Vanua Levu, Fiji. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere and the air was cooling slightly. Even so, short sleeves and shorts were the perfect dress. As we approached the pool, we could hear guitars playing and men singing softly. Between our hosts, Collin and Terry, plus Terry’s Mom, Linda, Cagey and me, we became an audience of five.
“The Boys”, as Collin calls them were about eight of the various native Fijian workers at the resort. With them was one of their elders. All of them sat near the lava rocks on several woven mats. They sat facing in various directions, loosely making up two groups of four. The elder sat facing us, with a large Kava bowl in front of him.
Regarding Kava Bowls - The bowl is traditionally carved in one piece, from the trunk of a Raintree, or other forest hardwood. Some of the bowls (such as the one in the picture above at the Tenoa Hotel, Viti Levu) were carved from truly massive trunks, none of which exist today in the forests of Fiji. Fir the tourist trade, locals offer moderate sized bowls for $10 – 12 USD. Needless to say, I bought one, complete with a coconut shell scoop.
Back to our story - The elder’s assistant mixed the ground-up root of a native pepper plant with water and wrung it out, through fabric, into the ceremonial bowl. A polished piece of a dried coconut shell became the communal cup. Terry explained that the Kava Ceremony is the fabric that holds the Fijian social and spiritual community together. The ceremony, conducted only among the men of the village, involves some simple but solemn rituals of offering and accepting one’s share of the slightly muddy looking liquid. Its effects are described variously as mildly narcotic or as a slight natural sedative. If you could call the affects a “buzz”, it is at a frequency that is well below the audible level. You know you have experienced it, but you are not sure exactly what, if anything, has changed.
The assistant makes the rounds, offering a cup in turn to each of the guests and then to The Boys, as Colin called the band. Then a song or two are sung before another round is offered. In their traditional settings, the ceremony occurs when there is an event of significance to celebrate or deliberate. If there is a conflict between neighbors or even enemies, the gift of a kilo or two of Kava will erase all conflict and peace and friendship will be immediately restored. Powerful stuff, this Kava.
Between songs, Collin told the story of when George Harrison visited Lomalagi, soon after the resort had had opened. As we now know, (but did not, at the time of this writing) doctors had diagnosed George Harrison with what turned out to be a life-ending illness. However, those were happier times and he still had a measure of good health to enjoy. He had been traveling between England and Australia, where I believe he had property. On his visit to Lomalagi Resort, Harrison was scouting Fiji as a place to buy some property, kick back and enjoy life at a slower pace.
As George arrived at the Lomalagi Kava Ceremony, he immediately decided that his place was among The Boys. So he sat among them and played guitar with them as they sang. Noting that their instruments were of undetermined vintage and held together with tape and glue, he said that The Boys deserved better than the sorry instruments that they had.
Several months after his departure, unmarked crates arrived from England. Inside were new guitars and a ukulele for The Boys. From that time forward, the instruments have been known throughout the Fiji Islands as, “The George Harrison Guitars”.
And a beautiful sound they made. Sam, the dive master and guide to the dolphins always played his guitar a little flat. Even so, the bluesy influence of his playing fit right in. Often there appeared to be no leader for a song, while individual tunes would diverge and converge in a lazy way. Somehow they always came back together at the right moment. Maybe it was the Kava and maybe it was the songs, but between the voices, words and guitar melodies, it was easy to let your mind drift and your body relax.
I just searched the Lomalagi website for the word to the Lomalagi Song, which was written by one of The Boys. Alas, it was not posted there, but the “best line” from that song goes something like, “Lomalagi, where the views are brighter than you.” By the end of the Kava Ceremony, it all made perfect sense.
7:30 PM – With a couple of “stiff belts" of Kava under our belts (Is that a mixed metaphor?), it was time for an elegant dinner of Wallau, which is a light, not quite flaky local fish, along with all the best of accompaniments. Hmm…that’s about all I remember regarding dinner, other than our friendly hosts and servers. Could it have been the effects of the kava? As George Harrison, might intone, "My sweet Lord".
9:00 PM – We found our way back to our villa.
10:00 PM – It is five hours earlier (as you will recall) in Fiji, but we were ready for bed at what would be 5:00 PM back home in California. So that wrapped up what seemed like three days in one. There were the two days in suspended animation in L.A., the overnight to Fiji and the long day’s journey into Lomalagi. Soon, we went to sleep on a moonless night.