Unjustly fated to “one-hit wonder” status, Paul Fuemana was the voice of the New Zealand duo OMC, briefly famed for their worldwide 1996 smash “How Bizarre”. The song topped the charts in eight countries, including New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and Canada, and reached No 5 in the UK in July that year, bringing Fuemana considerable wealth. Even so, a combination of poor financial management, reckless spending and excessive generosity to friends and relatives meant that this slipped through his hands.
“How Bizarre” juxtaposed metronomic beats with mariachi-style trumpet, Polynesian soul and Fuemana’s vaguely surreal rap. The album of the same name was the most popular record ever by a New Zealand act, selling over three million copies. Fuemana failed to follow up this success, and was eventually declared bankrupt.
“Coming out of the ghetto and jumping on the world stage, he opened up a lot of doors for Polynesian music, especially the New Zealand hip-hop and R&B artists,” said Ermehn Lealaialoto Sakaria, who worked with Fuemana in an early incarnation of OMC. “The music industry is full of sharks and he happened to be in the water where there were a lot of sharks around him. He got taken advantage of.”
However, Simon Grigg of the huh! label, which released the album How Bizarre, maintains: “Pauly’s royalty stream was audited independently by his management three times. And it came out squeaky clean. Basically, Pauly spent it. He was very generous, and his friends spent a fair amount. I think Pauly essentially burnt out. He was an enigmatic soul, charming, inspiring and always fragile, both physically and mentally.”
Fuemana grew up in the tough, largely Polynesian suburb of Otara in South Auckland, where his father, having emigrated from the tiny Pacific Island nation of Niue, worked in factory jobs after marrying a local Maori woman. As is often the case in Pacific cultures, Feumana was largely raised by his grandparents, and grew up surrounded by Pacific Island church and secular music.
Unemployed after leaving school,|he sometimes had brushes with|the law – a period referred to in the song “On the Run”. Although he later talked about spending time in borstal during this period, there is no record of it. The blissful “Land of Plenty”|was more honestly autobiographical, relating his family’s joy at arriving in New Zealand.
By the end of the 1980s, Fuemana was starting to appear with House Party, an R&B band which included his brothers, Phil and Tony, and his sister, Christine. He started out as the group’s dancer and taught himself to play guitar. He was contributing vocals by the time they changed their name
to Fuemana, and featured on their eponymous 1993 album, issued on Phil’s Urban Pacifika label. Later that year, Phil Fuemana founded a group called Otara Millionaires Club, which included Paul.
In 1994, Paul contributed guest vocals on the track “Twelve” for the Shift Left album by jazz artist Nathan Haines. They had met in Auckland’s High Street club scene, where Haines played in the early 1990s. Otara Millionaires Club also had some success that year with “We R the OMC”, a hip-hop track featuring a Cypress Hill-flavoured rap by Fuemana. The band
split up soon afterwards, with Fuemana taking the OMC name, and forming a duo with the producer Alan Jansson. When he took part in Australia’s Big Day Out festival early in 1995, Rolling Stone dubbed Fuemana a “young Marvin Gaye”.
The single “How Bizarre” was recorded later that year and topped the New Zealand charts by the end of it, soon following suit in other territories. This plunged Fuemana and a hastily assembled group (which included Haines) into a gruelling year of promotional touring in Europe. They also spent three months in the US, where “How Bizarre” wasn’t released as a single in order to maximise album sales, but got plenty of airplay. “I remember turning on the radio in the bus and ‘How Bizarre’ was playing on three different radio stations simultaneously,” Haines recalled of this crazy phase.
Things began to go sour for Fuemana after he was compelled by Polygram to record an expensive cover of Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” for the 1997 Rowan Atkinson movie Bean. The career-killing song flopped, and in 1998 Janssen sued Fuemana over unpaid royalties. They settled out of court, but the creative partnership was over, and by 2000 Polygram’s new owners, Universal, had dropped Fuemana.
In 2005, Phil Fuemana died of a heart attack at 41, and the following year Paul was declared bankrupt, losing his home, numerous assets and songwriting royalties. Grigg eventually brokered a reunion between Janssen and Fuemana, resulting in OMC’s 2007 comeback single “4 All of Us”, but it too flopped and Janssen called it a day soon afterwards.
Fuemana had been ill for several months before his death, and is said to have been suffering from a neurological disorder.
Paul Lawrence Fuemana, singer and songwriter: born Auckland, New Zealand 8 February 1969; married Kirstine (three sons, two daughters); died Auckland 31 January 2010.