Building a musical ark for all of us
Groundation's Harrison Stafford explains his blend of Jewish heritage and a love of Rastafarian culture.
Groundation and Harrison Stafford (far right) Photo: courtesy/pr
It’s comforting to know that there are still people like Harrison Stafford
around. Like a welcome time warp, the out of fashion hippie ethos of peace, love
and understanding are still warm, fuzzy and alive in his world of optimism and
And 14 years and seven albums in, the guitarist and singer’s
sprawling California-based jazz-infused roots reggae band Groundation is still
bringing home the message of togetherness, spurred on by equal measures of Old
Testament fervor and Rastafarian rapture.
That synthesis – borne out of
Stafford’s Jewish upbringing and a later Rastafarian awakening – is most vividly
felt on the nine-piece group’s latest album Building the Ark, which he described
as their “greatest work to date.”
“For me, the ark, whether it’s the ark
of the covenant or Noah’s Ark, is a place of safety, a place where you put
something that you want to keep and protect,” said Harrison this week from
Italy, where Groundation is in the middle of a European tour which arrives in
Israel for a show at the Barbie Club in Tel Aviv on July 14.
“And on this
album, we’re trying to spread the message that good people come from all walks
of life, cultures, nationalities and colors. And we shouldn’t be satisfied until
everybody is brought into the ark.”
Stafford is what used to be called a
rabble- rouser, but he’s a benevolent one, using music as his weapon of choice,
and building his own personal ark with his varied group of musicians onstage
every night. As like a possessed prophet of old, he passionately describes his
efforts to spread the love.
“We have these great people in the audience
and we always say to them, ‘look around, these are your brothers and sisters,
these are the people who are going to be there for you in your time need. So
remember each other, and have love for each other and keep those positive
vibrations burning,’” said Stafford.
“We can’t let money, greed and
vanity dominate our thinking, we have to let love in, and that’s what the album
is about, trying to wake people up.”
Stafford and Groundation – derived
from “grounation,” a Rastafarian ceremony aimed at reaching a common vibration
through the positive power of prayer and music – have been raising
consciousnesses since 1998 when Stafford and two fellow students in the jazz
program at California’s Sonoma State University – keyboardist Marcus Urani and
bassist Ryan Newman – discovered mutual alchemy and a shared love of reggae and
Over the ensuing years and widely varied and
ambitious albums, the band grew to is current nine members, including a jazz
horn section and female Jamaican singers Kim Pommell and Kerry- Ann Morgan.
According to Stafford, Building the Ark is the first time all the members have
been able to fully express themselves, a development he attributes to their
roles constantly evolving.
“After all this time together, you better be
evolving,” he laughed. “You better be learning more about each other and each
other’s skills and how to highlight the musical ability to its peak,” he said.
“That’s why you have so many female lead vocals from Kim and Kerry-Ann, and
that’s not all. Everybody shines on this album, and we’re learning what it means
to really make good arrangements and compositions.”
STAFFORD LEARNED his
musical chops and his encompassing philosophy on life from his father, a jazz
pianist, whose non-conformist lifestyle included traveling many times with the
family to Jamaica where he discovered reggae and Rastafarian
Wearing a knit head covering suspiciously close to an oversized
kippa, Stafford said he incorporates the principles of both Judaism and
Rastafarianism in his daily life, in respect to loving one’s neighbor and
striving for equal rights and justice.
“Like it says in the Torah, when
one person is suffering, the whole house of Israel is suffering,” he
“Growing up and going to Hebrew school and attending temple is a
part of who I am, just like my jazz training is,” said Stafford. “It’s in the
consciousness, it’s part of my tool box. So whether writing about Masada or
Moses or Abraham, there have always been a lot of biblical themes in our
“But with Building the Ark, even though it refers to the Torah,
there’s more of a universal theme being expressed – it’s not a remembrance of an
old event but a conversation about the future.”
performed a number of times in Israel in the past few years, and Stafford has
become enamored with certain aspects of the country, calling his first visit
five years ago “a homecoming.”
“I never experienced something like that
in my life, and I’m sure most Jews around the Diaspora experience the same
things, of being in awe at the street signs and store signs in Hebrew,” he
“It’s the kind of place for Jews to be who they are, which is
essential because we’ve been treated poorly for so many years.”
that’s why Stafford said that the band’s musical experiences in Israel have been
among their most memorable, with their material taking on another level of
meaning being performed in his spiritual homeland.
“It’s almost like the
music of Groundation made the most sense in Israel, it was like a whole new
experience,” he said. “The level of the songs and performances just jumped at
that first show we did five years ago, and it was felt not only by me, but all
At the same time, on his most recent visit in 2010, he
visited with Palestinians in Kalkilya and Ramallah and called the journey “an
“I don’t have any definitive statement to make, but the
experience didn’t necessarily bolster my Jewish identity,” he said.
it did make me reflect on the present day occupation and what is needed to
create a harmonious society between Muslims and Jews. We’re part of the same
family really, and how to bring that family together is part of a new challenge
Another challenge Groundation is experiencing is
transferring the vibrancy and vitality of live, organically-played
improvisational music to a younger generation raised on playbacks, iPods and
samples. The options afforded Stafford as a youth of being exposed to jazz and
reggae is much more of a long shot today when many attention spans don’t last
beyond the first verse of a rap song.
“We’re living in an age right now
of delicate balance, where we’re getting a lot of knowledge from technology but
at the same time, we can’t lean on it too much,” he said.
“We see this
manifested in music because music is our life. As we tour around and play
festivals around the world, we find very few bands that perform without some
form of mechanical robot thing – whether it’s a click track in the drummer’s
ear, or the whole band’s ears, a backing track they play along to or even a DJ
just bringing his laptop on tour.
“It’s a danger, that people are going
to lose their musical skills. And part of what we’re doing is hoping to steer
the ship in a different direction.”
With Stafford at the helm, you know
it’s going to be smooth sailing.