‘Music is my marrow’
‘American Idol’ was a break amid many bumps
Paula Fuga is convinced she was born to sing. "Music is my marrow," she said while relaxing on the rooftop of thirtyninehotel, the Chinatown gallery/performance space that will host her second-ever "real gig" this weekend. "I've been a lover of music ever since I could hear, you know?"
With opening acts Mike Love of Dubkonscious and Liane
» Place: thirtyninehotel, 39 N. Hotel St.
» Time: 10:30 p.m. Friday
» Tickets: $5
» Call: 599-2552
Despite numerous challenges, the 26-year-old hopes to launch a recording career with her debut album set for release in early 2006. And it's all thanks to the show "American Idol" and a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "Big Girls Rock!"
BORN AND raised in Windward Oahu, Fuga is the product of a broken home. Her parents split when she was four, with her father returning to Samoa and Fuga living in Waimanalo with her mother and two siblings.
Intermediate school brought turmoil to her remaining family, when her mother got into trouble with drugs and the law.
"I'm lucky my mom did that, so I don't have to," she said. "I was directly affected by her choices, so I know what choice not to make myself."
All three children were taken into custody by the state, which put them into foster care and sent Fuga to live with her grandparents. She had started playing the flute (the "cheapest instrument" she could afford at the time), but switched to ukulele lessons with the legendary Roy Sakuma during her junior year, thanks to a grant from the Friends of the Children's Advocacy Center. While in high school, Fuga also participated in the annual "Brown Bags to Stardom" talent competition.
After graduating from Kailua High School in 1996, Fuga moved to the Big Island and took classes at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Citing a lack of jobs there, she dropped out of school and moved back to Oahu a year later. These days, she works at the Bishop Museum's Hilton Hawaiian Village location and teaches Hawaiian studies at Ahuimanu Elementary School.
THE LAST time Star-Bulletin readers saw Fuga's picture in the paper was three years ago, when she was captured serenading other "A.I." contestants outside a Sheraton Waikiki ballroom.
Although she represented Hawaii to the fullest, Fuga was ultimately rejected by judges Paula Abdul, Simon Fuller and Randy Jackson. As fellow Hawaii residents Jasmine Trias and Camile Velasco moved on, Fuga watched the competition unfold from home.
"It was a really good opportunity, but I know I was meant to do something else," said Fuga. "I got everything I wanted out of it ... (and) I'm sure they'll remember Jasmine and Camile way more than they'll remember me, but that's all I needed.
"I didn't have to sing a different style of music that I wasn't familiar with, and I got to play my ukulele, sing a song that I wrote and just be myself. I was so excited."
Playing off her newfound star appeal from "American Idol," Fuga got back into the recording studio after a previous attempt failed. She also spent 2004 singing with reggae band Dubkonscious and perfecting her solo set, gigging at venues like Bliss Nightclub, Don Ho's Island Grill and Pipeline Cafe.
ON SEPT. 29, Fuga realized one of her longtime goals when she was hired to headline a show at neighboring nightspot NextDoor. Next up for the musician is finishing the process of getting her debut album mastered and distributed to a growing fan base.
"I produced it and I wrote every song on it," Fuga said. "I have to mix it still and redo some vocals. We should be sending it off to get printed in January, so I'm hoping it gets released by Valentine's Day."
Friends from local bands Ooklah the Moc and Swampa ZZ have contributed to the untitled project, as has jazz musician Justin James and cellist I-Bei Lin. Fuga's friend Solomon Enos has also helped throughout the process, and is slated to provide artwork for the album.
"Growing up in Hawaii, you're influenced by so much," she said when asked about the diversity of artists she's worked with. "In fact, I'm trying to bridge this gap between scenes. When I went to 'American Idol,' it expanded my horizons.
"I just want to make this music and I pray that it goes as far as it can possibly go, you know?"