Paula Fuga
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Paula Fuga


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"Redemption Song"

Reggae—with its killer riddims and get-up, stand-up messages—was born on the island of Jamaica in the ’60s and spontaneously combusted in Hawai‘i in the early ’80s. In the absence of cyberspace, MTV or commercial hype, it traveled the old-fashioned way—heart to heart. The synchronicity between the Pacific and the Caribbean, tapping into shared visions of righteousness and resilience, said volumes about the island spirit, and Hawai‘i’s love affair with reggae even produced an offspring known as Jawaiian, a hang-loose jam to answer the grittiness of Trenchtown. And even if it didn’t mean a better world coming soon, then at least it put magic in the day.

At twenty-eight, Paula Fuga, Hawai‘i’s newest music sensation, wears the mantle of those times with grace and gravitas. She is, indeed, a child of the magic, having grown up in Waim¯analo, where a pulsating mix of island music issued from her parent’s boombox, from rec center dances, from parked cars on the beach. Fuga likes to think of island music’s big roomy bass-lines as a confidence-builder at a time when awareness of native identity was building. “I mean, for the first time it was cool to be Hawaiian, and here you had this music that made it cool to get your skank on, cut a rug and express yourself! So to be Hawaiian at this time … it was like having this good fire inside,” laughs Fuga, who is of Hawaiian, Samoan and Filipino descent. Fuga also credits island music with helping her cope with the drug use and poverty then wracking her community and her family. As she puts it, music made her feel love: “I hadn’t even been in love, but I could sing a love song and imagine how love would feel someday—

Paula has a voice that is spellbinding. In live performance she so mesmerizes audiences that a whole year before entering a recording studio, she got top billing at the renowned annual KCCN Island Music bash. Now with her first self-produced CD of all original tunes, Lilikoi, she is greeting the first flush of fame with daring, diligence—and humility. When I ask her about the praise she’s reportedly received from national acts that have caught her performances, she cites the advice many island music veterans have given her: “Even if you play a big stadium and it’s awesome, don’t just bump it out of your mind and rush ahead to the next thing. Take time to reflect, because that’s how you get the most goodness out of something.”

After she wowed the crowd at the KCCN bash, Paula realized that while she loved performing, she was wary of being locked into any sort of commercial identity. “It’s all about lifting restrictions and seeing what happens when you are not confined,” she says. “That’s why improvising is the great part. That’s what I think Bob Marley did. He didn’t feel confined. When I am at a concert, I am listening for a different run, for the artist to go low instead of high. I want a surprise verse in the middle, something that says you are in the moment, in the zone, truly creating. When you’re in that zone, you can do anything you want. Now that’s total freedom.”

The following evening, I am at Pipeline Café, awaiting Paula’s arrival on stage. The scene of island kids skanking in the customary Hawai‘i way—perhaps influenced by hula hips and surfer stance—isn’t much different than it was at its inception twenty years ago except for the occasional glint of cell phone display windows under the disco lights. But then there’s this: a few young girls sporting T-shirts that say “Big Girls Rock”—a reference to what is fast becoming everyone’s favorite Paula Fuga story: Paula wore this shirt unabashedly to an American Idol audition in Honolulu and even presented Randy, Paula and Simon with their own copies. She was baffled that she was the only one out of hundreds of her peers with an ‘ukulele—the unofficial must-have instrument for Hawai‘i jams that she has played proficiently since elementary school. “I mean, of course, I had an ‘ukulele,” she laughs. “I’m not trying to be Mainland. I’m going to be me, no matter what.” She didn’t make it past the notorious trio, but the show’s producers later flew her to perform at the CBS studio in Hollywood.

At Pipeline, Paula’s voice starts out as a low sultry moan that surges into every corner of the venue. She plays it like a Coltrane solo, not ready to quit until she’s wrung the cry out of every measure. She introduces her CD title track, “Lilikoi,” by explaining, “I wrote this song for the empowerment of women.” Like its namesake title, it refers to a sweet-sour quality. “There was this time I fell in love and I realized I was putting all my happiness in someone else’s hands, and I wasn’t feeling good about myself. So this is my reminder to myself that I have to be one within,” she intones. Then she is off, mixing it up with a playful dance, jibing with her musicians and bantering with the audience in a way that is reminiscent of Hawai‘i’s greatest populist musician, the late Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, or Brud - Hana Hou Magazine

"Sweet and Sour"

Like many young musicians today, Paula Fuga says she listens to all different types of music. Among them she includes Erykah Badu, Soldiers of Jah Army and Jack Johnson—who, she admits, has become a more tangible influence since she met him on Oahu’s North Shore last year.

The meeting took place during a kickball tournament Johnson was participating in, while Fuga was singing on the sidelines. When he was done playing, he approached Fuga and asked her to join him in this year’s Kokua Festival—his annual mega-concert to support a non-profit organization intent on raising environmental awareness in Hawai`i. Fuga says she was nervous and excited.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Fuga says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God! Jack! I know who you are!’ I was going off.”

The timing couldn’t be better. Unbeknownst to Johnson, Fuga was gigging regularly in preparation for releasing her debut CD, Lilikoi. The exposure Fuga would get from being in a lineup that included Johnson, Ben Harper, Henry Kapono, Damien Marley and Willie Nelson, was momentous.

“It was a surreal experience,” she says, “to share a stage with all of those people at this stage in my life. Somebody told me the biggest asset I have is people’s faith in me—that they love the music, what I’m doing. It’s the key element in my being able to make music.”

Born in Louisiana in 1978, Fuga’s parents raised her on Oahu in Waimanalo. When she was four, her parents split and her mother got involved with drugs. They soon sent Fuga to live with her grandparents. Though traumatized at the time, Fuga considers it a blessing now, choosing not to make the same mistakes her mom did.

Fortunately, Fuga also benefited greatly by her grandparents’ love and appreciation of music. While her grandfather played slack key, her grandmother played `ukulele and sang and generally supported young Fuga when she naturally showed an interest in music. She first started playing flute but then switched to `ukulele, under the instruction of Roy Sakuma.

“I’ve always made music, ever since I could remember,” Fuga says. “Whether it was with scissors or whistling or snapping my fingers. But my mom never knew I could sing until I was in high school.”

Fuga actually gave her first public vocal performance in the first grade. She remembers sitting at a lunch table in the cafe of her school in Kailua when some teachers asked her and a few friends to sing onstage.

“I sang every song I knew,” Fuga says. “‘Ten Little Indians,’ ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat,’ ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ And then the next day, they asked us to sing again but I didn’t want to sing the same songs. So they brought out a microphone and I sang Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ and everybody laughed. I was so shame!”

The experience was not lost on her. Fuga insists that, to this day, every time she performs she makes sure to sing each song differently than the last.

“Music is alive,” she says. “It’s always growing and moving. I just groove with it.”

In 1995, when Fuga was a Kailua High junior, she competed in the annual “Brown Bags to Stardom” talent showcase in Honolulu. She sang Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” and made a lot of friends.

“It was awesome,” she says. “I got to meet Richard Grieco and Natalie Cole, and a lot of talented kids around Hawai`i—a few of them have gone on to play music professionally.”

After high school, Fuga got a job teaching Hawaiian Studies at Ahuimanu Elementary. She also landed a gig as educational interpreter at the Bishop Museum.

And then there was the infamous American Idol audition. It was 2004—the same year Camille Velasco and Jasmine Trias had much of Hawai`i glued to their sets. That year, there were three rounds of auditions in Hawai`i alone.

Out of 2000 hopefuls in Round One at Aloha Stadium, 200 moved on to the Sheraton Moana Waikiki. Then out of those, 60 moved on from Round Two at the Sheraton Moana Waikiki. Only 20 would make it to Hollywood for the televised showdown spectacle.

By all accounts, Fuga sang an exceptional version of “Son of a Preacher Man” in Round Three. While she noticed that the AI producers and judges were referring to other contenders by their numbers, they were calling Fuga by her name. She was ecstatic.

Nevertheless, Paula, Randy and Simon didn’t pass her through. But when it came time to film the American Idol pre-season special “Uncut, Uncensored, and Untalented,” Fuga was flown to Hollywood anyway, along with other people who were rejected but had a popular response. CBS Studios put her up in a fancy hotel in Beverly Hills and asked her to write a song about the judges.

When the AI cameras captured Fuga and her `uke performing a reggae-tinged tune she called simply, “American Idol in Hawaii,” the Internet Weblogs and message boards blew up with new fans’ demands for a video or mp3 of the song.

She got a lot of offers—most of them bad—from her brief stint on TV. But she did make an important connection with Spencer - Maui Time Weekly

"The New Face of Hawaiian Music"

On stage is a calm, queenly young woman, wrapped in a black pareo. She stands on her bare feet, and in a plaintive, soulful voice, sings “Lilikoi” to a gentle reggae beat. Midway through the bittersweet song of love, she breaks into ‘olelo Hawai‘i—“Ina mamake au e hopu i ka i‘a/ Pono e malama i ka lo‘i / e piha ana i ka loko i‘a / hiki no ke koho me ka pono” (“If I want to catch a fish, I must tend to my lo‘i / The fish pond will fill up/ I will be able to choose with correctness.”)

The audience goes crazy.

Unlike the tracks in rotation on Hawaiian 105 KINE—which are as trapped in the past as Jurassic flies preserved in amber—her songs are living examples of Hawaiian music.

Her name is Paula Fuga, a Hawaiian girl from Waimanalo who made a splash when she auditioned for American Idol in 2004. She plans to release her self-produced debut in February, and Jack Johnson just tapped her to join him in this year’s Kokua Festival. Along with the bands Kamau and Kupa ‘Aina, Fuga is part of the next wave of Hawaiian music.

Twenty-five years after the death of Gabby Pahinui, a handful of bands and performers are making music that might not sound like “Hi‘ilawe,” but its heart is pure Hawaiian. Kamau and Kupa ‘Aina are two bands that write and perform songs about real life and current problems that say more about the islands today than “Fish and poi, I’m a big boy.” Sometimes they do it in ‘olelo Hawai‘i.

Not that there is a lack of contemporary local acts putting out Hawaiian music. Far from it. But from Keali‘i Reichel to ‘Ekolu, the songs are, by and large, slick, sentimental productions that have all the soul engineered right out of them. And more often than not, the lyrics are little more than the musical equivalent of a “Live aloha” bumper sticker— they are meaningless words in a time when Hawai‘i faces pressing political and social issues.

“It gives us inspiration to want to put something out there that people can grab onto and think about, to try to fill that void that’s out there,” says Kamana Beamer of Kamau. “A lot of people are trying to do it, but you play [Island Rhythm] 98.5, and… not to say there’s anything bad about it, but it’s kind of commercial.”

He adds, “We have beautiful islands, beaches and people, but we have a lot of problems, and that’s not reflected at all.”
What is Hawaiian music?

Two years ago Paula Fuga went to the Tahiti Fête at the Waikiki Shell. “To me, the music is as Hawaiian as the person playing the music,” the singer says. “Man, I love Sade, R&B kind music. At this show, the performance was unreal. For 45 minutes this one halau kept the stage going at all times. Girls in cellophane skirts imitating the sound of the ocean. In the background all the traditional instruments stopped. There was this acoustic guitar doing Sade’s ‘Sweetest Taboo,’ then they went into Tahitian—I got chicken skin.”

“We’re trying to negotiate our identity. Local people are not just Hawaiian—it’s the generation before us that was concerned with annihilation. Ours is trying to recapture what the generation before may have lost. That’s something that’s going on around the world.”
—Kevin Chang of Kupa ‘Äina

Fuga realized she could use Hawaiian language with any kind of music. “If they can do Tahitian R&B, I can do whatever I want in Hawaiian,” she says.

While the local media keep rummaging through the record bins of Hawaiian music past, a whole new renaissance is happening. Fuga wonders if perhaps it is because a whole cadre of young talent such as Raiatea Helm keep the traditional flame burning bright that a new sound has emerged. Freed from the chains of preservation, musicians have the liberty to embrace innovation. It’s what Eddie Kamae and Pahinui did in the 1950s, and Peter Moon, the Cazimeros, Country Comfort and Kalapana did in the 1970s.
Establishing identity

Every Wednesday for the last five years, Keola Nakanishi, the director of Halau Ku Mana Public Charter School, has hosted an open music jam in his garage on St. Louis Heights Drive.

On a recent night, Fuga, Kupa ‘Aina leader and entertainment lawyer Kevin Chang and a handful of other talented musicians—some in bands, others not—are gathered in the dark, the only light coming from a lamp post above and the blue glow of an electronic keyboard. People move effortlessly from instrument to instrument—guitar to drums to keyboards. And they all join in on the singing.

Mike Love, who drums with five bands, including Melodious Solutions and Dub Konscious, says, “This is my favorite place to play music. It’s pretty magical. Cool bands, like Groundation, always find their way here.”

According to Nakanishi, the producer of the short-lived television series Hawaii dropped by once looking for “organic, less poppy local music.” And there’s a reason. “There are a lot of things that come from the love of music. Different focus, agendas or styles of music all come together towards pono,” Nakanishi says. “What’s on the - Honolulu Weekly

"Paula Fuga's album leaves 'Idol' in dust"

Paula Fuga may not have been made for TV but she has a voice and potential to outdo all previous "American Idol" contestants to date. Her debut, "Lilikoi," is ripe for success.

And Steve Inglis, a singer-composer with the gentle spirit of a troubadour, demonstrates his ease with originals and a couple of adopted Hawaiian songs in his second CD outing.


# Genre: Maoli music with a contemporary spin.

# Distinguishing notes: The first time I saw and heard Paula Fuga, she was in the corridors of the Sheraton Wai-kiki hotel. It was October 2003, and she was an "American Idol" wannabe auditioning for the TV show's third season, which would expose to the world the likes of Jonah Moananu, Jasmine Trias and Camile Velasco. Fuga, from Waimanalo, sang bold, hypnotic music, strumming 'ukulele, gathering polite, appreciative applause from others waiting for The Verdict, that post-sing-for-the-judges yea or nay. She didn't make the cut. Now Fuga, making her name on her own, is on the threshold of another big vote: Will the public embrace or dismiss her debut CD?

Frankly, Fuga's disc, out on her own label, is the best yet to emerge from the Hawai'i "Idol" contingent — no covers, no copycat imitations. The CD is loaded with Fuga-composed tunes that display sweetness and soulfulness, innocence and maturity. Clearly, Fuga is firmly part of the dawning of a "new" Island sound devoid of Jawaiian riffs and loaded with insight and originality. Most promising track? Possibly "Thought of You," heard in two forms, the first with an enigmatic uke and chamber string backing, the second "Roots Rendering" version with an earthy reading infused with a mild blend of jazz and folk. Several other cuts demonstrate the breadth of Fuga's vision: "Lilikoi," like the fruit, is sweet and tangy; on "Nose Flute Dub," as implied, she embraces the traditional instrument; "Sweet Reverie" has flashback blues elements with unexpected string quartet seasoning.

# The outlook: Fuga performs with passion — the "Lilikoi" tag is spot-on.

# Our take: With support from Jack Johnson (he included Fuga in his Kokua Festival), "Lilikoi" could be the most defining, delectable debut since Keali'i Reichel's "Kawaipunahele." - Honolulu Advertiser


Paula Fuga - Lilikoi
Mana Maoli - Country Road with Jack Johnson



A humble beginning surrounded by the blues and gospel music of Louisiana, rooted and matured in the cultural richness and diversity of Hawaii, and eventually touring the West Coast of America have infused Paula Fuga with a voice that is wet with soul from America’s Bible Belt, ripened by the various textures of paradise, and cultivated with sophistication through a sovereign journey.

On her independent record label, Pakipika Productions, Paula Fuga has managed to release her unique flavor of music around the world, earning an astounding and dedicated fan base, while collecting impressive critical acclaim, including a Na Hoku Hano Hano Award; Hawaii’s highest and most prestigious music honor, which lead to her collaboration with the Honolulu Symphony, opening for Three Dog Night. She’s also been a prominent feature on the L.A. indie radio station 103.1’s Native Wayne Show, and featured as the Global Hit on NPR’s syndicated program The World.

In 2006, she was one of the first Hawaii-based artists invited to take part in Jack Johnson’s Kokua Festival. A friendship sparked, and the Grammy Award winner has since collaborated with Fuga to record Country Road as a benefit for the fund-raising CD, Mana Maoli, with money used to support Native Hawaiian Charter Schools. Jack and Paula have subsequently appeared alongside one another on “Give Voice,” a featured track on Culver City Dub Collective’s debut CD, Dos. The L.A. based dub-outfit, Culver City Dub Collective backed up Fuga on her May 2007 U.S. tour, shared the stage again in Fuga’s January 2008 West Coast tour, and collaborated yet again for the West Coast leg of Jack Johnson’s 2008 U.S. tour

In September 2007, Fuga organized the inaugural Lilikoi Fair in Honolulu, a 3-day festival benefiting the launch of her non-profit organization, The Lilikoi Foundation. The foundation will aid women in transition, providing them with medical assistance, mentorship opportunities for teenagers, counseling, and classes geared at strengthening individual self-love and respect. Fuga’s hard at work ushering in a positive support system for at-risk women in Hawaii, and continues to work towards causes that strengthen families in both her music and through her foundation.