Reggae and its many subgenres dominate Hawaii’s stages and airwaves with (dare I say?) a vengeance.

Many elements give this type of music universal appeal. Its popularity spans from Norway to New Zealand and every point in between in all conceivable directions.

Yet it is most ubiquitous in the tropics, in the latitudinal parallels of its birth.

I refuse to believe that reggae’s immense popularity on Maui is due solely to the music’s catchiness, the ease with which it can be played or its warm weather/spliff-puffing conduciveness.

Instead, I think a major part of reggae’s popularity in the isles rests in the open wounds still gushing in colonialism’s wake. While much of it focuses on love and island life, reggae music is music of struggle, of raging against hegemony and loss of cultural identity. At the same time, it’s also full of optimism and calls for unity.

Maui artist Dezman (a.k.a. Desmond Yap) is a case in point, which makes him a good choice to play at this Friday’s celebration of Bob Marley’s birthday. Dezman has been frequently booked at venues islandwide since his return from Oahu (he received his B.A. from UH-Manoa in May 2008). Raised on the Valley Isle, he started playing and recording at an extremely young age and cites Bradda Iz, Bob Marley, George Helm and Bob Dylan among his major inspirations. While still in junior high he wrote “Waiting for your Love,” which students of Kalama Intermediate recorded and performed. He wrote the song “When is Love Going to Last Forever?”, which racked up significant radio play, in a high school ukulele class.

His record, Noble Soljah, was released in 2001.

Despite the above-mentioned song titles, Dezman’s lyrics tend to veer toward the political. One challenge of writing political songs is avoiding clichés while maintaining accessibility, which Dezman does pretty well. His lyrics are loaded with political and social commentary, but he doesn’t oversimplify; it’s clear he gave them a lot of thought.

People who write politically charged music often risk losing broad appeal due to the fact that the subject matter is kind of a downer. (I once caught a little flack for covering Dylan’s “Masters of War” in a campfire setting.) Dezman avoids this problem by maintaining a degree of cautious optimism.

His catchy compositions, which often consist of common reggae chord progressions overlain with pleasant vocal melodies and floating electric guitar leads (examples: the 2001 love song “Noble Soljah” as well as the song “Smarter We Become”), also take the edge off the tough issues he tackles.

From a sampling of a few key Dezman tunes I can tell that his music is best experienced live. While the studio offers endless takes as a chance to perfect harmonies and guitar leads, it can also partially mute the rawness that is part of this music’s appeal. 

The outdoor venue where Dezman will be jamming (Paia Gardens, behind Island Cuisine) this Friday will be a perfect chance to test this theory.

Also playing will be roots band Guidance, Ras Bonito and others. MTW