It was a voice and a face that went around the world. As Sister Zina, Sina provided the insanely catchy vocal hook that that helmed the chorus of OMC’s 1997 US No.1 ‘How Bizarre’ and its follow up, ‘Right On’. But, despite the offers that followed, she walked away.
Sina Saipaia grew up in Otara, South Auckland, and first started singing in her family church, initially in prayer sessions but she soon graduated to the church choir and solo spots. Around the age of 14 she met another local Otara teenager, Pauly Fuemana, and through him was introduced to the new Otara Musical Arts Centre (OMAC), where Pauly’s older brother, Phillip Fuemana, was working towards establishing a creative home for the many young Otara musicians.
Her first group was a local outfit, La Linx, formed at OMAC in 1988, but she was quickly invited to join Sistermatic. She had been introduced to the new band being put together by former Newmatics Benny Staples, Mark Clare and Sid Pasley by Tim Mahon (ex-Blam Blam Blam and now council liaison for the Manukau council funded music centre).
Sina’s vocal was prominent on the only Sistermatic single, 1989’s ‘Million Dollar’ but the band split soon after.
Her next recorded appearance was on the 1994 Fuemana album New Urban Polynesian and she toured New Zealand that year as a backing vocalist on the Phil Fuemana-organised Proud tour, which also included his Otara Millionaires Club.
When the Otara Millionaires Club split after the tour and Pauly Fuemana formed OMC with producer and co-songwriter Alan Jansson, Alan knew he needed another voice to lift the chorus of a song he was recording with Pauly. He invited Sina to contribute a second vocal. That song was ‘How Bizarre’.
In early 1995 – as part of OMC – Sina toured Australia on the Big Day Out and Jansson committed himself to producing a solo album for her after he’d completed the debut OMC long player. “Alan promised me, you’re next, and he was true to his word,” Sina told Median Strip’s Fresh Air in 1998.
As ‘How Bizarre’ developed in the studio, Sina’s vocals became more and more prominent in the mix.
However, before ‘How Bizarre’ was released Sina would also – with Neil Finn – provide the distinctive backing vocals on Tim Finn’s February 1995 Top 10 hit ‘Runs In The Family’, produced by Alan Jansson.
As ‘How Bizarre’ developed in the studio, Sina’s vocals became more and more prominent in the mix and it was clear she would need to be featured in the video. She was also namechecked in the very first line of the song: “Brother Pele’s in the back, sweet Zina’s in the front ..”
Sina (she would be credited as Zina on the album) would also appear on the second single, ‘Right On’, another New Zealand and UK hit, before signing directly to the same label as OMC, Simon Grigg’s huh! label, via PolyGram.
Sina’s debut album, produced by Jansson, was recorded in 1996 and 1997 and the first single, ‘Don’t Be Shy’, was released in June 1998 with a simple but effective Mark Tierney-directed video. It peaked at No.2 and was certified gold.
The month before the release, Mercury in the US had also committed to the record, beating a bid from Motown for Sina, in the wake of ‘How Bizarre’. The planned second single from the album, ‘Boy’ was featured in the movie What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted and was picked up by radio from the soundtrack album, creating an instant – and unplanned - airplay smash in late 1998. In a rush, the single was penned in for Christmas release.
Then Universal purchased PolyGram at the end of the year and everything was instantly put on hold. ‘Boy’, already pressed, sat on a non-existent release schedule as everything went into limbo until the merger was completed. Despite that, the New Zealand Listener tagged it as the local pop single of 1998.
It was the final misstep and Sina Saipaia decided she’d had enough.
However the moment was lost – Universal were more focused on the handful of acts they had on their roster, Mercury in the US were no longer able to sign and Sina was increasingly disillusioned and disheartened despite Universal’s token release of a passable cover of The Supremes’ ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, a song only recorded after PolyGram/Mercury pressure for a cover version on the album, and remixed in Australia in a mix that somehow no longer captured the spirit of the Jansson original production.
It was the final misstep and Sina Saipaia decided she’d had enough. “I no longer want this”, she told Jansson, and she withdrew. Universal decided that the album would remain unreleased. An offer to release the record via Sony in Australia came to nothing when Sina showed complete disinterest.
While her name has appeared on various credits in the years since (she wrote two songs for the 2003 Alan Jansson-produced 3 The Hard Way comeback) she’s mostly been content to raise a family and she performed occasionally live with her partner at the time, the late country singer, Ritchie Pickett.
Postscript: Sina's debut album was finally issued by huh!/Universal in November 2017.