OPEN mics are like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re going to get. Many times, I get spoilage and bitter stuff. However, last night’s open mic at Kava Bar in downtown Asheville was a subtle revelation. Although, it wasn’t near as fascinatingly active (as yet) as the demised Beanstreets Café open mic of yesteryears, it is still the most promising poets-singers gathering in my neck of the woods in the past few years.
Nestled on the ground floor of a relatively new south of Lexington Av condominium that also houses a bookshop and laundromat—Kava Bar is ideal enough for the kind of classy, cerebral, quiet dive that poet recluses like me prefer. Hardwood floors, intimate bedroom dim lighting, two handicap accessible bathrooms, patio/courtyard at rear entrance… Indeed, I just found myself a Wednesday night perch. The bar is advertised as “refreshingly elegant, Tiki atmosphere”—though I’d say, it’s more subdued and reserved beyond what we know of islander luau vibe.
I took a few minutes touring the place myself. The cork board displays flyers and business cards about new age-y, yoga, spiritual events and entrepreneurial endeavors. The wall book shelf has all kinds of radical stuff from Marx to Trotsky to Chavez and Mao. Figure that one out now… The performance room is the size of a $400/month college rental room, neatly groomed with emptied coconut husks sticking out overhead, folding chairs in attentive rows, and uniformed throw pillows upfront on the floor. Talk about bedroom intimacy… Yes, it’s wi-fi—but, of course!
I haven’t really ventured the menu yet (“delicious island and vegetarian cuisine,” the internet pitch said). The moment you step in, a perky lady-bartender with a wide aloha smile greets an unsuspecting visitor with a warm invite to try the house’s kava drink. Kava isn’t your average smoothie or fruit juice though. First timers concede it tastes like dirt, but as the bar muse offers, it’s an acquired taste. She’ll hand you a tiny dish of pineapple chunks as chaser.
But does this brew really tastes like “sweet dirt”? I mean, even a cool dude who sang pretty accessibly that night, chanted about the Kava as “dirt” drink. But don’t take me seriously on that one—I came from the islands, and I can attest this strange drink is a lot better than any of your healthcentric flavored bottled waters. It’s just that our first-world tastebuds are accustomed to anything sweet and delicious. So deal with it!
Kava (or kava-kava) is a crop of the western Pacific. The word is Tongan and Marquesan. Consumed throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia (including Hawaii), Vanuatu, Melanesia and some parts of Micronesia, the roots of the plant are used to produce a drink with sedative and anesthetic properties. Kava is sedating and is primarily consumed to relax without disrupting mental clarity. So there… Don’t get ideas.
And before I forget, if you are reading, you get a free Kava cup—the size of a cappuccino cup—so that’s already something that you may not respond with a “No, thanks!” After all, it costs $5. That is Pacific Islander hospitality right in the heart of beer-flooded downtown. Dig?
Back to the open mic.
QUIETLY amiable host Caleb Beissert, I reckon, unfurls the curtain each session with a few poems. Last night, he read a few of his own, plus the Allen Ginsberg cult classic, “Homework.”
I observed the young man as he set up the stage. It’s always mysteriously sublime to see people devote time and effort to these non-paying weekly gigs—assuming, of course, he’s not paid cash other than well, a Kava cup, for emceeing.
Still, he handled the show smoothly—cautiously and courteously cutting a performer or two who tended to slide past the allotted 8 to 10 minute time. There’s no radical mouthing, anti-this and that sociopolitical commentary, or boisterous cuss words that usually punctuate freewheeling open mics. Caleb does it business-like and professional—plugging other shows in town in between, as well as upcoming gigs by poets and musicians present at that time (of course, including my Tuesday, June 21, show at Firestorm).
The lineup was pretty decent. I particularly like the visiting singer-songwriter from Florida who sang about an iPhone that he just bought. There’s a guitarist (“Django”) who read a poem from his, well—iPhone (or cellphone), and another singer who did a 38th parallel, North Korea bit. Another guy accompanied another one on bongos—whose outfit reminded me of an overdressed Angus Young, minus the long hair and Stratocaster. George Glass, a veteran of Beanstreets, was even there—and, yes, this chameleonic soul never fails to confuse me with his ever-changing looks (he’s not like he alters his hair color or puts in/loses weight each month, it’s just that he looks so different each time we chance to cross paths).
That was already a cool lineup for an otherwise bored midweek. I was so thankful that I didn’t encounter drunken open mikers who can’t seem to find the last bars and last words to their songs and poems; the ones that gave me such headache at Courtyard. You know what I’m saying… If you’re a bit wary of “what you’re gonna get” in an open mic—such as unkempt urchins who’d haggle Marlboro and PBR money or inebriated denizens who lash out at the microphone over late rent funk… nah. Kava Bar is cool as a dorm patio run by a Buddhist monk who probably listens to Pink Floyd and reads Thomas Pynchon and Federico Garcia Lorca and keeps a strict hummus and tempeh diet. You get the drift… I mean, there’s even a folkie who did an easy lazy-by-the-windowsill cover of George Harrison’s “Something.” And a beatboxer fella with a Carrot Top redhead. Oh yes, I got a few applause and handshakes for my three pieces. How cool is that?
I hope that Kava Bar’s Wednesday open mic lives till it achieves a respectable status as that of Beanstreets. Many tried to replicate or duplicate that initiative but no one came even close to it—including my previous attempts at The Dripolator-Biltmore and Courtyard Gallery-Carolina Lane. But, with more support and attendance, this tiny convergence of poets and singers and stuff and things will be the talk of the town, and destined to re-live poetry nirvana in Asheville.
And, mark my word, Kava will be the next cool brew in this side of Appalachian heaven. Dirt, whatever.
Vanuatu Kava Bar is located at 151 S Lexington Ave, Asheville, NC 28801. Tel # (828) 505-8118. Open on Tuesdays – Saturdays, 4pm to 12am; Sundays – 5pm to 12am; Mondays – closed.