June/July 1994

by Alice Refiti-Shopland

Fuemana: Family First

by Alice Refiti-Shopland

Fuemana: Family First

The Fuemana family could sound like your stereotyped Polynesian New Zealanders. You know the sort of thing: father from Niue, mother Māori from the Taranaki; brought up in central then south Auckland; steeped in church; strong family ties; a bit rough around the edges, with gangs, jail and booze making an appearance… Well, forget the stereotype, because this family is for real. And it’s here to make a mark, whether in its present form or some future evolution. Alice Refiti Shopland talked with Phil and Paul Fuemana

Phil Fuemanafuemana brothers is a big man. He was certainly conspicuous when I met him in an Auckland city cafe. As a measure, I’d point out that the latte bowl he was drinking his coffee from seemed the size an ordinary tea-cup would in the hands of most other people. And as soon as he started talking, in his quiet but decisive way, it became apparent that his reputation as an instigator of things musical would be catching up to his generous frame in no time flat.

In February and March this year, eight South Auckland groups – Otara Millionaires Club, Vocal Five, Di Na Ve, 3 B Chill, Sisters Underground, Pacifican Descendants, Fuemana and Matisa – toured the country. From Invercargill to Whangarei (stopping at places like Tokoroa, Queenstown, Kawerau and Wanganui en route), they played to audiences big and small. Being mostly vocal harmony or rap acts, the backing music was pre-recorded on DAT and musical continuity was in the hands of sound engineer and occasional NZM writer Chris Sinclair.

Phil Fuemana was a major player in the instigation and organisation of the Proud tour and ‘Proud’  compilation album, which was released in April this year (1994) and climbed steadily to number one on the NZ Compilation charts. Talking to Phil about the rise and rise of Polynesian culture in Auckland, I voiced my observation, that it’s still fairly rare to see a Polynesian in a high street cafe, for example. Phil drily pointed out in return that hanging out in cafes isn’t really part of Polynesian culture.

“Our homes are our cafes! Central Auckland over the last couple of years has woken up to the fact that Pacific art is a lifestyle rather than a fashion.”

But Phil admits that Pacific groups are still trying to find their feet and express their own identity, rather than that of the American groups that often inspire them.

“We’re trying to make more of what is ‘us’ come out in our music.”

With his sister Christina, Phil is Fuemana, the “purveyors of Polynesian swing” whose first album, ‘New Urban Polynesian’ is due out, both here and in Australia, through Deepgrooves and Festival by the end of July this year.

But they’ve already found success with the singles Dangerous Love and Closer. The latest, Rocket Love, was about to be released at the time of writing, and a fourth single, Seasons, will be released in September. Phil submitted all four of those songs to NZ On Air for inclusion on their Hit Disks and funding for videos – and all have been accepted. Rocket Love has just been confirmed, and work was starting almost immediately on the video. It will feature Christina and Phil, with excerpts of the new Kiwi short film, Funny Little Guy, directed by Chris Graves. Phil describes the fact that ‘New Urban Polynesian’ (put together for “…a fraction of the cost” of most albums), was totally Fuemana-produced, as an important step.

“It’s important because we need to be in control of our music; its production, its direction and of course the money. I have learnt over the years in this industry, that unless you take the time to get to grips with the business side of music and keep up with what’s going down with music technology you might find yourself in 10 years time, still singing jingles waiting for that big break.”

Phil works from his church, the Manukau Christian City Church, which has its own MIDI pre-production suite. Pre-production for the new Fuemana singles and album, Otara Millionaires Club, and Radio Backstab and DJ Payback‘s two tracks on the ‘Proud’ compilation, Jules Issa‘s new single, plus backing tracks for Matty J‘s support tour for Annie Crummer, were all done at the MCCC studio. Phil says that having the facilities for pre-production in South Auckland is important in keeping the music “ours”.

As well as being an integral part of Fuemana he manages and writes for OMC plus Radio Backstab and DJ Payback. And later this year Phil will release his own first solo album, a gospel compilation of originals and covers to be called ‘A Friend’. He’s confident of the success of this album (which will include a Niuean choir), pointing out that the Christian music network is very supportive and that a year-long tour of New Zealand and overseas churches is an achievable goal for ’95 or ’96.

Christina, nominated as the most promising female vocalist in the 1991 NZ Music Awards, is the true soul singer in the family says Phil, so she’s going to take a stronger role in the Fuemana project. With a contract from Festival to do an album and four singles a year over three years, Fuemana seem set to steadily develop into a major New Zealand soul act.

phil christina fuemana

Phil became involved in the Proud project when he was asked to find South Auckland groups to participate. He then became tour manager and spokesman for Proud. The Proud album, dubbed ‘urban Pacific street soul’, was produced in a joint venture between Enterprise Otara, a community projects group, and Second Nature Records. Second Nature’s parent company is the Australian dance label Volition Records, which in turn belongs to Sony Australia. Phil worked with Alan Jansson at Second Nature’s Uptown Studios.

“Working with Alan was a great experience. His detail to production qualities gave Proud the cutting edge. If you want that ‘international’ sound, Alan’s the man!”

Of the eight groups that toured with Proud, Semis, Sisters Underground and Pacifican Descendants were already on the Second Nature roster. Two of the Enterprise Otara acts – OMC and Radio Backstab and DJ Payback – have since been welcomed into the Second Nature stable as a direct result of the Proud success. Vocal Five are currently negotiating a deal to release an album for Christmas, also thanks to their Proud exposure.

Incredibly it was only a year from the conception of the ‘Proud’ idea to the end of the recording of the album. Running with the momentum built up by the first project, Proud II, ‘The Rhythm Returns’, is already being plotted by a team of six, and should kick off around September. And, “…if you’re young and funky”, says Phil, you could do worse than send him a demo (c/- Enterprise Otara, PO Box 61114, Otara, Auckland).

In keeping with Phil’s business-like approach, the aim of Proud II is to have more creative control. He is also starting a MIDI school in the church music suite. Ten students at a time will be able to spend two days a week learning how to create “phat” tracks, using loops and samples. It won’t be free, but it will be cheap.

“The Pacific whanau needs to be heard,” he says, and it’s all part of the plan.

Leader of the Otara Millionaires Club, Phil’s younger brother Paul Fuemana admits he’s always been the loose cannon in the family.

“OMC is basically a vent for all the frustrations we feel as urban Polynesians, stereotypes, paradigms, political oppression, racism and the media that continue to present us in a bad light… basically all the things that piss us off!” Paul explains.

OMC started as a project Phil Fuemana brought together as an experiment.

“I recruited my brother Paul, because I knew he was talented, a couple of friends and Herman Loto [aka Radio Backstab]. From there we hit Uptown Studios, I sung a bridge and damn, we gave birth to the Otara Millionaires Club!”

Paul confirms he was “pushed” into becoming a Millionaire by his big brother, and feels this allowed him to escape the cycle of non-violent crime and institutions that he got involved in at an young age.

“If Phil hadn’t pushing me into doing this I’d still be there, in it up to my neck. Phil showed me we’ve got to go forward, and I love him for that. He had the direction. I had direction too, but it was straight to jail!”

Along with Paul Ave (a Rarotongan from Dunedin), in OMC Paul Fuemana discusses the tougher side of life. He talks about growing up in Otara, about being half-Maori and half-Pacific Islander (“…how it tore me apart”), about joining gangs and ending up in jail.

“I couldn’t go back to all that, but can write about it. I think it gave me a bit of character. While the themes might sound very much along the lines of hardcore black American rappers, Paul insists he’s not interested in imitating another country’s bigger problems.

“I like hip hop and rap, but I don’t like the whole image behind it, like talking in American slang and having to wear Starter caps. I’m very patriotic to my own country – I won’t bow down to anyone else’s culture.”

Paul wants to get one other point straight – OMC is not just a rap group.

“Hell, I’d be the first to admit we ain’t Ice Cube or Pharcyde. We just do what we want to do – as long as someone else is paying the bills, we’ll keep doing the OMC thang. We all love to sing, and all of us can play most instruments.”

The Otara Millionaires Club line-up is still being refined, and is about to add another creative dimension with top singer, rapper and ragga girl Sina. At the time of writing, We R The OMC (the second single to be released off the ‘Proud’ album) was number three on the bFM chart. The trance element in OMC’s music means they are better accepted in central Auckland than Otara, Paul explains.

He describes the Proud tour as a good experience.

“Going on tour with 40 guys is pretty intense!”

And, in some ways, it was like being in a gang all over again, like when the team got out in a new town wearing their lavalavas.

“I could see the locals were a bit afraid of us – they’d never seen so many brown faces, a lot of them.”

Still, local Polynesians (who made up about 70% of most of the tour audiences) lapped it up, and provided very positive responses. Paul’s hoping for even more positive feedback when OMC go to Australia for a six-week tour with Radio Backstab and DJ Payback, and the Semis. There’s talk then of carrying on to the United Kingdom.

Sisters Underground were the first Proud act to leave our shores, flying to Hawaii to perform and audition in front of representatives from Motown. No word has come back yet, but Phil is very confident that if it’s bot the Sisters then one or other of the remaining Proud artists will break internationally.

This family thing could get a lot more complicated if Phil’s gospel project moves to other shores, but for now it works admirably, despite the fact that Fuemana is signed to Kane Massey‘s Deepgroove Records (distributed in NZ and Australia through Festival) and Otara Millionaires Club is signed to Alan Jansson’s Second Nature Records (distributed in Australasia through Volition). For now, though, the Fuemana family is managing and balancing everything just fine, thank you very much.

Photos of Phil & Paul Fuemana taken for NZM by by Greg Semu.

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