Solid footing

Groundation isn't pure reggae, as its founding members have strong jazz backgrounds and a general love for music

Harrison Stafford 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harrison Stafford 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even though Harrison Stafford is a Jew, born and raised in the US, he's got the philosophical outlook and vocal intonation of a Jamaican, born and raised on reggae music and Rastafarianism. That dual cultural pull has found expression through his lifelong pursuit of spirituality and through the music of Groundation, Stafford's California roots reggae band which he formed in 1998 along with Marcus Urani and Ryan Newman. The band is making its second visit to Israel in a year, playing Friday night at the Muzik City festival taking place Exhibition Hall 10 of The Israel Trade Fairs & Convention Center, along with Nigerian rootsy/funk singer Nneka. "I grew up in the East Bay in California, went to Hebrew school, got bar mitzvahed. My father was a kohen and my mom a Levi," said Stafford on the phone from France where Groundation was about to perform. But in addition to his Jewish heritage, his father was also a jazz pianist, and the non-conformist lifestyle he led included many family trips to Jamaica during Stafford's youth, instilling in him a love of Rastafarian culture. "I still practice Judaism in my own way. I carry a Bible with me on the road, and read through it on an annual basis. I guess we're all bits and pieces we pick up along the way, which makes up the whole of who we are. Who I am is derived from being young in Jamaica and getting exposed to Rastafarians. Lots of roads on this planet end up leading you to the same path," said the bearded Stafford, who usually appears onstage wearing a turban. Stafford was exposed to music at an early age, with his father regularly playing him tracks by the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. "Instead of hurrying me off to bed, he'd say, 'Check this out,'" he recalled with a laugh. "But a few years later in the late 1970s, my older brother started listening to a lot of roots reggae like Israel Vibrations, Culture and, of course, Bob Marley. Hearing that stuff really opened my ears." Groundation, named for Grounation Day, a central holiday of Rastafarians celebrating the April 1966 arrival of Haile Selassie I, the last emperor of Ethiopia, in Jamaica, came into being when Stafford studied music at northern California's Sonoma State University in the mid-1990s and met Urani and Newman "I knew I wanted to study music, and jazz was the thing I felt would give me the tools and knowledge to help create the sound in my head. I ended up meeting Marcus and Ryan in jazz theory classes and playing in jazz combos," said Stafford. "We felt a spark together that humbled us. We were all on the same path, coming to music at an early age and devoting our lives to it. It was great for me to meet like-minded people without any ego. Music is such a humbling thing. Like life, it's endless and you're always striving to be better." Urani and Newman shared Stafford's love of reggae, and incorporating their knowledge of jazz, created a seven-piece band including a horn section that, through five albums and countless concerts, has expanded the boundaries of what reggae music is. The American Music Guide called the band "perhaps the finest roots reggae band in California. It's seven members generate slow, smoky, disciplined grooves that rumble and shudder with the inexorable power of an elephant stampede and manage to sound simultaneously sensual and mystical." ACCORDING TO Stafford, Groundation's music is not pure reggae. "If you were to listen to 100 reggae albums and then a Groundation album, you'd find something different there. There's polyrhythmic structures and stuff that reggae music doesn't use - strange time signatures," he said. "But it's not coming from a learned state where we sit and consciously say let's try and write some challenging music. It just comes from improvising all the time, listening back. Then, thanks to our musical knowledge, we're able to take the recordings, transcribe them and build on them. So having the educated side and the spiritual side works both ways." Between 1999 and 2001, Stafford tried to combine those same elements outside of the music arena when he taught the first course on the History of Reggae Music at Sonoma State University. "I enjoyed teaching the course. It took a couple of years to get the university to buy into it, but it proved to be very popular. I was thinking it was a special history course, not just about reggae music. But at a certain point in the 1970s, it was also the history of the consciousness raising of the Rastafarian movement. It was like two histories coming together and uniting, as opposed to just teaching jazz history or rock history," he said. "People were surprised and taken aback. I had to end up limiting the class size, it became a challenge to remember everyone's name," he laughed. Even now, Stafford is trying to bring Rastafarian culture to the masses in addition to making music with Groundation. He's finishing up a film that he's been working on for 10 years on the history of Jamaica and the Rastafarians, called Holding Onto Jah. "There's no narration, it's just based on interviews with artists in Jamaica, people who were there in the 1966 and have firsthand knowledge of what happened. That's when they became rastas, when Haile Selassie arrived," said Stafford. For someone who is so immersed in the culture, Stafford hedges when asked if he's a practicing Rastafarian. "Rasta is not really a religion, it's in everyone. When you come down to the foundation of love as a cohesive force inside people bringing them together, that's Rasta. I don't like to be affiliated with anything organized too much," said Stafford. "I follow Rastafarianism in the basic sense, in that we're supposed to love one another, strive for equal rights and justice on the planet. Like it says in the Torah, when one person is suffering, the whole house of Israel is suffering."