Banaban Voice

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The Bells of Rabi Island - Cruise of the Ladybug

Tuesday, July 23, 2013
As we sailed away from the village of Tabwewa on Sunday morning, the bells began to chime, calling the people to church. Earlier, a handful of cheerful and noisy children had paddled and swum out to Ladybug to say hi, but few adults were to be seen. And we knew why.  Saturday night is the main night for 'grog' (Kava) drinking because on Sunday, the people do not work. The men (and some women) stay up, often until dawn, drinking shell after shell of kava. Starting in the late afternoon, we saw groups of men gathered around heavy steel pestles, taking it in turn to drive an iron rod into the pestle to pulverize the dried and cleaned kava roots. On each stroke, the rod was removed, striking the side of the pestle and emitting a chime, similar in sound to, but very different in significance from the bells we would hear the next morning. Interestingly, the Banabans on Rabi only took up kava drinking when they emigrated to Fiji in 1945.

Panea, Tabeta, and little Taipau - Panea is cleaning our kava

We had our first grog drinking evening a few days before at Motawa, with 'The Old Man', Panea, presiding over the kava bowl and Bill's son Kasipoa and son in law, Taipau, taking turns to pound the roots. We had brought a bundle of kava purchased in Savusavu as our contribution and Panea carefully cleaned this first, removing some dirt from the turns and hollows in the roots. The sons then pounded the roots using an iron rod as tall as a man and a heavy steel pestle made by welding an inverted steel cone to a plate about a foot square. The powder was brought inside in a small bowl, transfered to a fine cloth, and then into the kava bowl, which had been partly filled with well water. Panea then began to repeatedly massage and twist the carefully bundled powder, the cloth taking on something of the role of a tea bag being squeezed. The water quickly turned brown and muddy looking. Panea tasted it by dipping a shell made from half a coconut. He judged the drink to be too strong and added some more well water before offering me a full shell. Samuel instructed me to clap once before I received the shell and three times after drinking. I knew I was expected to drink it all in one go and did so. Rani also tried a shell, although they served her a 'low tide' shell - only half full.

Kasipoa pounds the root using an iron rod and steel pestle

Panea squeezes the good stuff out of the powdered kava by massaging it inside a folded cloth

The kava was peppery and not unpleasant. I had been told that it would numb the lips and make one feel mellow and relaxed, especially on an empty stomach. This probably explains why the grog afficionados waited to eat supper until midnght or so. I did experience a mild tingling initially, but as the night wore on and we drank shell after shell of kava, I defnitely felt a buzz - maybe equivalent to drinking a couple of glasses of wine. The shell went around the hut, most of the men and women drinking full shells until the bowl was empty. The used root powder was saved and re-used later after a second pounding. New root brought from their plantation up the hill was pounded when the root we brought had been finished. Altogether they extracted four large bowls of grog from the 1/2 pound of roots we brought and we must have drunk about twice as much again from their kava before retiring around 9:30pm (we had been drinking for 6 hours!). The serious grog drinkers continued into the early morning.

Samuel and Chris playing  mellow tunes

 Kava also seems to have a mild diuretic effect and I had to make a few trips down the beach in the night. But perhaps this was due to the large volume of liquid I drank - 16 or 18 shells, each about 1.5 cups!

To accompany the kava, we ate chilli provided by Ladybug and a special vegetarian dish that Tabeta and Panea made with Rani's  help. This is called palusami and Rani will describe the recipe for this in another post. They even killed and boiled one of their chickens in my honour. Of course we had some of the local staple - a starchy root vegetable that is nicknamed 'elephant ear' for its giant leaves (we have posted photos of this plant on our blog).

 Saturday night ritual in Tabwewa - pounding the kava .

We also sang songs accompanied by the newly repaired ukulele and my own uke. Everyone here seems to have a good ear and there were many talented uke players in the family. For my part, I played and sang tunes by the Beatles, Eagles, Elton John, and Simon and Garfunkel. The family members took turns to sing Banaban songs - many of which describe the history of their people. The harmonies and rhythms were lovely and I will try to post recordings of a few of these to this blog.

Pauline has a lovely voice and is also a good uke player

We felt so very lucky to be invited to spend a day with this family. They have little, but are willing to share what they have with new friends. This season we have slowed way down and while we are covering a much smaller area, we are enjoying ourselves more because we are getting to know local people better.

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