story by Joan Conrow
photo by Monte Costa
When Oshi Grady traverses the highways and byways of Kaua‘i, he has just one thing in mind: turning people on to the bitter, slightly numbing drink made from the Pacific’s sacred root, awa. Grady runs a traveling awa bar on the Garden Isle, and he goes to parties, weddings, lu‘au, even reggae concerts with root in hand. Once arrived, he sometimes works from a table, sometimes from the bed of his pickup truck, but either way, his awa is prepared in the pure style: lomied and strained.
“It’s a healthy alternative to the beer garden, and you can drive home safely afterwards,” says the mellow merrymaker, “and awa has been an integral part of life in the Pacific for centuries.”
Awa has been a part of Grady’s life since he was 10, when his father, Dallas Watanabe, began visiting Fiji and learning about its ritual uses there. Grady himself became deeply immersed in awa culture four years ago, after spending six months in Fiji. Back in Hawai‘i, he began drinking awa with friends, gathering around a communal tanoa, or large bowl, and playing music and talking story. The sessions invariably left him with a deep sense of wellbeing. “Everything about awa suits my lifestyle,” he says—a sensibility that prompted him to start an awa distribution business, Wai‘ale‘ale Kava Source, and to figure out a way to take his personal experience public. On a typical Friday night at Small Town Coffee in Kapa‘a, Grady uses a coconut bowl to ladle the liquid from a calabash. As he fills cups and passes out sticky-sweet samples of dried awa mixed with honey, he chats easily with the patrons—a mix of locals and tourists, young and middle-age. “Awa is a drink that somehow puts everyone on the same level,” he says. “It brings people together and makes them happy. It feels good to be a part of that.” HH