Kava is a drink made from the dried roots of a Pacific island shrub pounded into a gritty powder. Evidence suggests it first appeared in Vanuatu some 3,000 years ago, and today is used both ceremoniously and recreationally across the Asia Pacific.
US-born, New Zealand-based photographer Todd Henry drank his first shell of kava in 2004. He says it made him feel relaxed, but without muddying his mind. Intrigued, he became a frequent kava drinker in Tonga, where he’d moved with his wife.
In his ongoing photo essay Tau 'Alu Faikava, Todd documents kava traditions around the Pacific. We spoke to him about what he’s learned in the process.
VICE: Hey Todd, can you tell me about your first encounter with kava?Todd Henry: I first came to New Zealand on a working holiday and I went to Fiji as a side trip. I'd heard about this drink they give you in the villages. I was a little bit nervous about it, almost like "is it gonna mess up my coherence and things like that?" So I was very cautious with it at first, but I drank two shells. But then I remember after, when I left I was like "man, I feel so relaxed!"
What does it feel like?
You know, kava doesn't really give you a sensation. It's more that it takes things away. It takes away anxiety or stress. With drinking alcohol, it's like you feel drunk. But with kava, you just feel relaxed. You're able to not stress out about things.
Does it taste like mud?
Nobody drinks kava for the taste. There's over 100 different cultivars of kava, and they all taste different, but it's less about taste profile and more about the effect profile. Some are more uplifting. Not quite like coffee, but better for conversation, while others are heavier and better for sleeping or deep relaxation.
Do people drink kava in social sessions as we do alcohol?
Yeah, kava can be consumed in a very traditional, ceremonial context, or it can be a more casual, social context. A lot of the photos you see here are more casual. Especially the Tongan ones, where they're all sitting on the floor and drinking from the traditional kava bowl—there's not a lot of ceremony that goes into those casual sessions.
Can you give us an example of a more formal kava ceremony?
Sure. One example where it's used primarily for ceremony would be in Samoa. Kava is very important to the Samoan people, but less people are drinking it in a casual context in Samoa than in Tonga. For example, when a Matai chief arrives at Auckland airport, they would have people waiting for him. As he arrives through the customs area, they would have a kava ceremony right there in the airport. Everyone is dressed in ceremonial dress, and when the guy comes out, they say something in Samoan, welcoming him in. He has a kava, then a couple of other high ranking people have kava, and then it's like he's welcomed in. In that context, they wouldn't be feeling anything from the kava, because they're just having one shell and it’s purely ceremonial.
Okay, and let’s talk about these more casual sessions. Is the aim to get drunk?
No, there's this thing that I was told by some older kava drinkers in the community. If you're drinking kava to escape or to get messed up, you're drinking it for the wrong reasons. It has been wrongly reported that kava is a depressant like alcohol. But it's actually a mild soporific, if you get technical about it, which is a sleep aid, basically. Kava doesn't actually make you fall asleep, but when you do go to sleep, there's some research showing that your brain goes into REM sleep faster after drinking kava. In saying that, kava is not a cure for depression. For me, it takes away anxiety but I wouldn't say it's any kind of a miracle cure for anything.
Is there any stigma around kava? Or is it a completely accepted part of these cultures?
Yeah there’s some stigma and especially in New Zealand. Most Kiwis have had kava in some ways, especially if they've gone to Fiji. But there seems to be a bit of… I don't wanna say racism, but in some cases a bit of like "oh, that's what the Islanders drink".
So it’s become a stereotype?
A stereotype, yeah, definitely a stereotype. I mean I've even had one lady, a Pakeha New Zealander lady, say something like "oh kava, that's high-powered alcohol that Islanders drink before they go out and beat people up". These people say this stuff to me not knowing my connection to the Tongan community, so I'm like "well, actually, let's have the conversation" and then they get a little bit surprised.
Tau 'Alu Faikava is an ongoing series. What's the next step?
For me, I’m just going to keep documenting the culture around kava wherever I go. My wife and I own a kava bar in Auckland, so that's an interesting story behind that as well. I'll be documenting how this new contemporary kava space forms around what we've created. So, we’ll get a lot of new kava drinkers in there.