story by Liza Simon
photos by kyle Rothenborg
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 Bruddah Iz. Technically, I guess Paula has what you’d call clear vocal delivery, but I’d call her voice an instrument of divine deliverance.
“I can remember when I was maybe three years old, riding in the back of my mother’s car and she was singing along to a song on the radio, and I’m looking at her wanting to say, ‘Why are you even trying? This is my song, and I can do it better than anyone!’” Fuga laughs heartily as she tells me this story. Seated at my kitchen table, which is now strewn with cans of juice and sushi from 7-Eleven, she is charmingly ingenuous about the gift of her voice, crediting it to childhood circumstances—troubles and all—that gave her a unique chance to hone it. There was the period when her mother had no place to live and ferried her and her brother and sister to live on the beach in Waimanalo. “My parents had just separated, and my mother was not the kind to ask anyone for help,” Paula explains, adding that to her six-year-old mind, it was like a permanent camping trip with swimming every day. The homeless also “hui’d together,” she says, and connected their struggles with poverty to a fight for native rights. When authorities arrived to evict what looked like an illegal encampment, scrappy Paula was captured on film stridently confronting the men in uniforms with preternatural poise. “It was scary, but I felt we had a reason to stay. The adults had this hale they had made out of natural materials. It’s where they had meetings and all, but suddenly it was being torn down. Even as a kid, this seemed wrong.”
When her mother got caught up with drugs, Paula was also able to summon resolve. “I’d look at her and just think, ‘When I have kids, I’ll never let this happen.’” She credits her grandparents for taking her and her siblings in and supporting them: “I got to see another side: How you reap what you sow. And that’s why I looked forward to breaking the cycle.”