Building a musical ark for all of us

Groundation's Harrison Stafford explains his blend of Jewish heritage and a love of Rastafarian culture.

July 11, 2012 22:06
Groundation and Harrison Stafford (far right)

Groundation 370. (photo credit: courtesy/pr)


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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 hope.

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.

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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 expansive improvisation.

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 culture.

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 said.

“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 music.

“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.”

Groundation have 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 said.

“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.”

Maybe 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 the musicians.”

At the same time, on his most recent visit in 2010, he visited with Palestinians in Kalkilya and Ramallah and called the journey “an eye opener.”

“I don’t have any definitive statement to make, but the experience didn’t necessarily bolster my Jewish identity,” he said.

“But 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 I experienced.”

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.

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