Main Character: Rami Kayali, a South Florida native with a vibe that makes one assume the word “vibe” is of frequent use to him. Place: MeloMelo Kava Bar. Props: Two wooden bowls filled with a murky liquid.
I am sitting in a room that can only be described as chill. One side of the white wall is lined with orange couches and a cubby overflowing with board games, bobble-headed figurines and dense history books. On the other side resides Rami. He is tucked behind a pristinely crafted wooden bar (imported from Hawaii, he tells me later), pouring a murky liquid into an equally pristine wooden bowl. I wait for my cue. “Bula!” — Polynesian for “cheers” — he gestures to me with a grin. Our bowls clank and I chug the bitter liquid. My tongue tingles. I suppress a giggle. I feel the back of my thighs sink into the chair and the muscles in my face reach for the floor. I don’t feel fuzzy and I don’t feel sleepy, just loose and unusually … curious. The girl next to me finishes a bowl of Frosted Flakes and instantly, I want to ask her for her story. I instead sit pondering the lack of elasticity in her hair band when Rami’s voice pulls me back. What I have just experienced is the crop called kava: a plant that has been pounded, strained and distilled for my pleasure.
Rami opened MeloMelo Kava Bar with one intent: to provide others with this psychedelic experience — to expand the consciousness of those who pick up a bowl of his potent brew. Before this mission came to life, Rami dedicated himself to the South Florida nightlife: a tropical cocktail of past-their-prime adventure seekers and party goers. One night that began like any other, Rami discovered his higher calling. It came to him in the form of a pungent little pepper called kava. He packed his bags and began his mission or, rather, his not-so-customary entrepreneurial process:
Our bowls clank and I chug the bitter liquid. My tongue tingles. I suppress a giggle. I feel the back of my thighs sink into the chair and the muscles in my face reach for the floor.
“Step 1: Throw all my things in a suitcase
Step 2: Fly to the Bay Area
Step 3: Find a place to live
Step 4: Learn how to open a kava bar
Step 5: Find money to open a kava bar.
Step 6: Open a kava bar.”
The result was MeloMelo. While to Rami, kava has come to mean a sanctuary for the stressed out student, to the original founders, it meant something quite different.
About 3,000 years ago, Pacific Islanders were grinding the root primarily for ceremonial and religious purposes. First discovered in Northern Vannatua, it spread quickly to nearby islands such as Fiji and Tonga. As Pacific islands welcomed this alluring psychedelic, they in turn attributed their own use and meaning for it. Fijians often harness kava’s numbing and tranquilizing effects for a ritual called ibulubulu, or “burial,” in which a person may present a large quantity of kava to someone they have offended. In Tonga, it is used in nightly male bonding experience. While tradition remains strong in many parts of the Pacific, it is now primarily a cash crop, subsidized for its anxiolytic effects. This is how it rose to fame in the anxiety-ridden West, as well as how I initially became intrigued.
In my personal quest for a magical relaxation potion, I first had tried meditation. Ten minutes in, and I was convinced the estimation that humans have about 48 thoughts per minute was quite the underestimation. After many other ventures with results just as unfavorable, I gave up and dubbed myself a member of the anxious Americans club. Nearly 42 million people — 18 percent of American adults — has an anxiety disorder. Whether you blame our cozy relationship with our iPhones or our intolerant attitude toward negative feelings, anxiety is a problem begging for a solution.
But, then I found kava, which might have been it — the solution. Thanks to its active ingredient, kavalactones, kava has been proven to lessen the symptoms of anxiety, potentially as much as some prescription anti-anxiety medications. I ordered a pound online and have become a frequent visitor to the now-homey bar on University Avenue. Every night, I create my own concoction of the dirt-in-water-like drink and every night, I am pleasantly surprised to find it works. My nights are longer and my mornings less groggy. Yet, there is one internal colloquy that remains as I make my way in between classes to Rami’s kava bar. It’s this: Am I actively participating in yet another case of cultural appropriation? Or are my ventures to MeloMelo an innocent pursuit of total relaxation?
After spending time delving into the MeloMelo experience and its treasure — kava — I lean, with hope, toward the latter.
We in the United States love to dabble outside our own cultural experiences for the sake of self-help. Take yoga: We’ve all seen the 22-year-old woman, head-to-toe Lululemon, Starbucks travel mug in tow, racing to her expensive yoga class in a swanky studio. This popular image hardly alludes to yoga’s message of love and unity. But should we shame the woman in fear of cultural appropriation? Or excuse her for embracing a practice that simply makes her feel food? The same can be asked of kava, whose roots are certainly not in the United States, but has been scientifically proven to substantially improves anxiety symptoms. As one argument goes, it makes people feel better, so they should be able to use it.
“Most kava bars I’ve been to aim to mimic the traditional, tribal practices of kava. But we have no business putting up tribal art on the walls with no relevance to us. I’m not from the islands, neither is my partner. Instead, we tried to create an environment we’d like to hangout in.”
The complication to this seemingly simple statement, though, comes not from a girl curled up in her pajamas personally indulging in a brew before bed, but from the communal cafe that boasts Fijian symbols or ignorantly roars Tongan chants. This is imitation without proper recognition or respect and is deservant of disapproval. There’s a fine line between taking inspiration from something and stealing it for selfish capitalistic gain. To Rami, who confronts this line daily, it is about making the experience his own while maintaining a genuine understanding of the source of his inspiration.
“Most kava bars I’ve been to aim to mimic the traditional, tribal practices of kava. But we have no business putting up tribal art on the walls with no relevance to us. I’m not from the islands, neither is my partner. Instead, we tried to create an environment we’d like to hangout in. We wanted to create Berkeley’s own kava culture, while simultaneously educating our customers on its’ traditions and history.”
This is not to say we shouldn’t still be wary about appropriation. There are instances of mockery — imitation absent of respect — in the Western kava world, and if we universally accept it to be non-appropriative, we may not realize when we do cross the line mentioned by Rami. But appreciating it for anxiolytic relief, whether at home or in a cafe that focuses on educating its customers, is not where the fight is. We ought to save our energy for cultural appropriation incidents that are truly representative of harm.
So, I lay my culture cop badge on MeloMelo’s waxed wooden bar and I let the kava swathe my body in forced relaxation. Anxiety momentarily relieved, I close my eyes. I take a deep breath in, and let it out.