Pauly Fuemana: Otara's star flared but briefly

SOCIAL COMMENTARY: How Bizarre summed up Pauly Fuemana's take on life.
Sunday Star-Times
SOCIAL COMMENTARY: How Bizarre summed up Pauly Fuemana's take on life.

Pauly Fuemana might easily be written off as a one-hit wonder. Instead, the softly spoken Otara street poet produced an anthem for Polynesian New Zealand.

His 1995 hit How Bizarre is arguably New Zealand's most successful single piece of music. It reached No 1 in eight countries and No 2 in most charts.

It went across language barriers, as successful in Turkey and Sweden as it was in London. The family believes it raked in more than NZ$50 million, but little ended up in their accounts.

Born in Auckland, Fuemana was the son of Niuean Takiula Fuemana and Taranaki Maori Merelyn Fuemana. The youngest of seven, he grew up in South Auckland's Otara, a tough Pacific melting pot.

Fuemana, poor and often in trouble with the law, had only his music, often with his family, who were involved in the club music scene.

It was Fuemana's late older brother, Phil, who pioneered Pacific-flavoured hip hop and R&B. They formed the Otara Millionaires Club, or OMC, which proved short-lived.

Phil died in 2005, aged 41.

With next to no money, OMC had made a video in the Otara street outside Pauly's home. Featuring an open-top convertible, it caught the flavour of the youthful suburb.

Its lyrics, the family now say, are largely meaningless:

Ringmaster steps up, says the elephants left town / People jump and jive, and the clowns inch back around / TV news and cameras/ There's choppers in the sky / Marines, police, reporters/ Ask the where, for and why."

It was the chorus that made it: How bizarre, how bizarre.

Fuemana later said the song contained hidden stories the locals would have recognised.

His brother Tony just thought it was about Pauly. "How Bizarre was the type of person he was. The lyrics didn't really mean anything, it was his comment on life around him, what he saw."

As the song went global, he found himself sharing stages with super-groups like U2, and attracted adoring audiences.

Success was fleeting, and when Fuemana was declared bankrupt in 2006, he lost his house and royalties.

"I'm from Otara and I got to see Italy and Spain and Germany, to play at the Supper Club in New York and the Whisky a Go Go in LA. It was like a dream come true."

Fuemana, described by friends and family as a gentle thinker, accepted the rise and fall. He knew he had little expertise or money to fight to keep his earnings from How Bizarre and only ever expressed frustration at not being able to find experts he could trust.

What was lost was replaced when he and his English wife, Kirstine, had a large family.

His music took on a softer quality, with Land of Plenty celebrating New Zealand. "And my father used to say, 'Oh we came to this land of plenty'."

His brother says Fuemana leaves a message other than How Bizarre, and that is the possibilities of life, privileged or not.

"What he leaves is, don't blame anyone for your circumstances, you've got to be able to get up there for yourself."

Fuemana suffered poor health for several years and died from neurological-related causes.

Pauly Lawrence Fuemana, musician: born Auckland, February 8, 1969; married Kirstine 2002, died Auckland, January 31, 2010, aged 40.

Sources: Christina and Tony Fuemana

The Dominion Post