‘Reggae ambassador’ Marty Dread’s Maui roots run deep
Marty’s dreads are about as long as his musical career, and that means that they reach past his waist when he lets them loose. But he keeps his namesake locks tucked neatly into a colorful tam most days, because they’ve grown so darn heavy, he told MauiTimes. He’d like to sink equally long roots into the Upcountry soil, because after years on the road, Maui is where he wants to stay.
Marty Dread (given name Hennessey) is instantly recognizable to many Mauians, thanks to his ubiquitous appearances, performing solo or with a full band everywhere from resorts on the West side to pubs in Pāʻia, and on the deck of a boat filled with whale watchers, always barefoot.
Dread established his own label, Five Corners Records, and began releasing original recordings almost 30 years ago. His first single, “Wicked Wahine,” dropped in 1993, followed by his debut album, Versatile Roots, the following year. He’s since cut 20 albums, releasing new material every year or two for a quarter century, including two live albums and a greatest-hits collection. And he says he has recorded enough material for seven more LPs, ready to release when the time is right, including a collaboration with mentor and friend, Willie Nelson.
Dread had performed with his own band during a few benefit concerts that Nelson had headlined, so they were familiar with each other when they had a random encounter at a now-closed Pāʻia restaurant named Picnics. Nelson, a part-time North Shore resident, recognized Dread and invited him to join his table. After a few minutes of idle conversation, as Marty got up to leave, Nelson said the fateful words, “We should do something together someday.”
“It was just real nonchalant,” recalled Dread, “but I took that and ran with it.” He went right home and wrote an anti-war song about the world situation at the time (during the second Gulf War) called “Take No Part,” set to a rhythm by the legendary drum and bass duo Sly and Robbie.
He shared the finished song with Nelson about a week later and asked him if he would be willing to record it together. “From the top to the bottom he didn’t say a word,” recalled Dread. “Then he said, ‘Where’s the session? I’ll be there.’”
Sure enough, Nelson arrived at the recording studio with his trusty guitar, Trigger, in hand and recorded the song. It was during a visit to Nelson’s home to play back the mix and make sure he was happy with it that Dread befriended the Nelson boys. As Willie and his buddies played poker, his two sons were jamming with a friend in the next room, Lukas on guitar and Micah on drums, so Dread wandered in and introduced himself. Although Willie’s sons had been around music all their lives, Dread was able to share some of what he’d learned about song structure, and soon they were busting out whole songs together.
The youngsters formed a band which Willie dubbed “Harmonic Tribe” and invited to open for him on tour. They cut an album called “Awakening” on which Dread and Lukas shared vocal duties. They opened two of Willie’s U.S. tours, on one of which Nelson split the bill with Bob Dylan.
Dread has since shared the stage with the Nelson family at Farm Aid and Willie’s annual Fourth of July Picnic in Austin, Texas, not to mention countless memorable nights on the tiny, sagging stage at Charley’s Saloon in Pāʻia.
In addition to the Nelsons, Dread has performed with Kris Kristofferson, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Inner Circle, Michael McDonald, Jr. Reid, Mikey Dread, Pato Banton, Mad Professor, Toots Hibbert, and Common Sense. His latest recording is a tribute to the late reggae star Errol Brown, singer for the band Hot Chocolate, who is featured on each track.
Dread didn’t come from a musical family, with the exception of his great uncle Peter Vidal who was a top-ranked Cuban pianist and had performed for guests of the Castro regime. In fact, music wasn’t his first calling. He initially thought he would be a painter, and became skilled with watercolors, winning an award for his paintings of whales from the Sea Life Park on Oahu as a teen. But when his mother told him that his father hailed from a long line of East Coast whalers, he refused to go and accept the award out of shame.
He was still intent on becoming a watercolorist when he visited Moscow in 1997. He was among a group of school children from the U.S. who were introduced to a group of Russian children who they were supposed to become pen pals with—a token effort at international peace during the Cold War—but the Russian children were hesitant, likely having been told to be wary of Americans, Dread speculates. It was only when he grabbed a microphone and launched into “Twist and Shout,” that they all came together. Little did he know, the formerly-banned Beatles were enjoying a resurgence in Russia at the time and “Twist and Shout” was at the top of the charts.
“That’s when I realized the incredible power of music,” said Dread.
Back on Maui, he started to peek through the crack in the studio door and watch the Haiku band Venus practice. Eventually, band leader Danny “Davito” Smith invited him to sing with them and he was hooked.
In addition to his extensive knowledge of rock and blues guitar, Dread’s vocals are suited to everything from reggae and rock ’n’ roll, to R&B and country—all of which he loves. He formed his first band, Culture Shock, with bassist Kaipo Haleakala in 1993. They started out gigging at The Artful Dodger’s Feed ’n’ Read, a book store café in Kahului, and went on to play shows at all the popular Lāhainā venues for a couple of decades—Moose McGillicuddy’s, The Hard Rock Café, Maui Brews, Longhi’s—all of which are gone today.
Dubbed “Hawaiʻi ’s Reggae Ambassador,” Dread is known nationwide for his presence on the reggae-festival circuit, which draws huge crowds on the U.S. Mainland. He’s played Reggae on the River and Reggae on the Rocks and a dozen more notable festivals, and has performed at Harlem’s Cotton Club, Hollywood’s House of Blues, and even the White House, where he performed on the South Lawn for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and other dignitaries during the George W. Bush administration.
His musical travels have led to performances in Brazil, Thailand, Guam, Saipan, China, Barbados, and reggae’s homeland, Jamaica. But he’s never happier than when he’s home on Maui, working in the garden, playing with his kids, and creating new music.
He’s contemplative about the current state of the business. “The music industry is geared toward the companies reaping the benefit of the artists’ work, and if you just put it on Spotify and iTunes and all that stuff, you’re not really getting your artists’ share,” he said. “You have to get millions of streams to get hundreds of dollars. It’s ridiculous. It’s just not fair.”
“I started thinking, what am I actually currently reaping from all the albums that are already out there?” he said. “Not much, because they’re all on Spotify and all these platforms where you literally would have to have millions of people following you to make any decent living on that.” So, he’s made playing live the backbone of his career. “I love that exchange,” he said, “the dance between the band and the audience—I love that.”
“The key to it is, you can put whatever you want online, but you have to have a budget to promote it,” he said. “You could make the best record in the world, but if you don’t have an equal budget to promote it, nobody knows about it, so it’s just sitting there. And I can’t really release anything during the pandemic because I can’t tour it. Can’t tour it, nobody knows about it.”
COVID-19 brought Dread’s normally busy live performance schedule to a screeching halt. “All us musicians in the world found ourselves in a spot. But now that it’s starting to creep back, I’m finding myself not wanting to tour as much, because I see that the whole world comes to Maui. I can live the life I live in Hawaiʻi , happily be on my farm raising fruit and swimming in waterfalls and doing what I love to do and not have to leave.” Like many of us he became a borderline hermit.
“For the whole two years, obviously, there was no music at all, it was just silent,” he recalled. “I set out to compile all my recordings that were not released, and I’m literally sitting on seven albums right now—full length albums.” These include an album of duets with Wille Nelson, a collaboration the the Mad Professor, and a reggae project with legendary rhythm section Sly and Robbie recorded before bassist Robbie Shakespeare’s death in 2021. Other projects involved local artists, like Fiji and Amy Hānaialiʻi Gilliom.
As for the road, he’s pretty much done. “In short, what the pandemic taught me is that, as people come back to Hawaiʻi , I don’t have to do international tours to survive as a musician, “ he said, “because the whole world comes to me.”
“Why would I leave someplace as cool as Hawaiʻi?” he asks. “I’ve got this great career on Maui where everybody knows who I am through my years in radio and my years of performing.”
Dread started out in radio as a DJ hosting a popular weekend reggae show on KAOI FM, but when he tried to talk the station owner into starting an all-reggae station, he was rebuffed. So, he moved to another radio group and started Q103, which gained huge popularity islandwide and was eventually purchased by the KAOI Radio Group.
“At my age, is that touring schedule worth it, to get the music out there?” he asked. “At the end of the day, I’m not even kidding, between me, you and the wall, I’ve entertained so many rooms full of people, so many concert halls, if music all stopped tomorrow, I’d feel totally fulfilled.”
Getting good pay for Mainland gigs these days often depends on having a strong social media presence, which doesn’t really excite him. What does? Surprising his fans.
“What I do need to do is raise my profile in a way where people don’t expect the next move. Me working in a rock n’ roll band right now is really freaking a lot of people out,” he said with a laugh, referring to his appearances with Gretchen Rhodes and the House Shakers. “Now I’m working with this beatbox kid, Pono. I just like to keep people guessing.”
Pono is 2022 American Beatbox Champion Pono Akiona, who serves as Dread’s rhythm section as he plays guitar and sings. The two performed together at the Ritz Carlton Lounge in Kapalua Oct. 8.
“On a small island, people get bored with you,” said Dread. “They can only see you so many times if you’re not changing what you do. I just keep reinventing myself. Musically, I just want to keep expanding, collaborating with different people, and coming up with new ways to stay interested.”
Dread will be singing under the banyan tree by Pāʻia Fish Market Lāhainā on Halloween night. He performs with Rhodes and her band Nov. 18 and Dec. 2 at Dollie’s in Pāʻia. And he’s hoping to return to the Pacific Whale Foundation’s cruises this coming season.