Groundation: Rooted in reggae

Sonoma-county, Calif.,-based collective Groundation has the earthy pulse, driving rhythms and deep island grooves that make reggae instantly recognizable. But the band is pulling from more than a Jamaican tradition. The multi-ethnic group layers their sound with the sonic architecture of jazz, incorporating fierce horns and complex percussion over the heart-beat of bass. It’s tent revival-meets-night club; rebel music with all the polish and finesse of a martini bar. (Think I’m joking? They sold out London’s Jazz Cafe on their 2007 tour.)

A lot of the natural mystic-meets-urban cool has to do with Groundation’s dub prowess: a spare, instrumental-heavy remixing of reggae underscored by reverb and echo.

With their side project, Rockamovya just out, Groundation continues to cement its place as a grassroots movement with world-conquering aspirations. To release their five studio albums to date, the group created indie label Young Tree Records and built a fan-base spanning Morocco, Brazil, Germany and the whole of the U.S.

According to the band’s Website, “The name ‘Groundation’ came from trying to get everyone on the same level so people can talk and feel free to educate each other and learn from each other, and not come from a hierarchy or some type of leveled class situation.” Formed in 1998 by Marcus Urani, Ryan Newman and Harrison Stafford, Groundation’s songs are intimately tied to history and characterized by a strong sense of narrative. But don’t expect a lecture: live shows are energetic celebrations of community.

Xpress caught up with vocalist Harrison Stafford, who phoned in from the group’s RV, somewhere in the Southwest.

Xpress: Groundation is rooted in history. It seems like you could have been a historian rather than in a band. What lead you to choose music?

Harrison Stafford: Music came before getting all that knowledge. From a very small age, from the time I was 7 or 8 years old, music of the Caribbean and Africa has been a big part of my life. It was really my first love of music. My father was a jazz piano player.

Music is the foundation of all of us. We met at university, so we didn’t just begin studying music and studying our instruments when we were 15 or 16. We came to music when we were young: 10, 11, 12. Music was the foundation and it was through those years of growing up, reading more, traveling to Jamaica, traveling to Zimbabwe, traveling to places, trying to learn more about the culture behind all these things that really opened the eyes. That [gave me] the foundation to eventually teach a university course on all these things.

The first spark was the music. Singing reggae music is one of the earliest things I can remember doing. Eleven, 12 years old is when I came to guitar.

Do you feel like the teaching the university course and leading the band are separate endeavors or two aspects of the same thing?

Yeah, I guess it would be two aspects of the same thing. I feel that with whatever music you do, you have to have a knowledge of the history, a knowledge of those who came before you so that you’re able to take up that music or that torch or that style and try to bring it to the future. You bring it to the next generation, as opposed to not really knowing what it is, thinking that you have something new and original that, in fact, they used to do all the time back in the day. It definitely goes hand in hand, especially with reggae music since it has a deep foundation in consciousness and social awareness.

Is there any school of thought that says reggae is the property of Jamaicans and Americans — especially white Americans—shouldn’t mess with it?

I would say no. But that’s my opinion. Certainly Bob Marley broke through all those things and felt a need to travel the world to spread this music and the message. [He] knew it would not necessarily stay in the confines of the small Caribbean island of Jamaica. The music itself belongs to everybody.

If you listen to the lyrics they’re not just talking about what has happened to Jamaicans or what Jamaicans are facing, they’re talking about the world. From my personal perspective, growing up and being born in the U.S., in California, I wondered why it was that only these poor black people were singing about equality and love and justice for all races. It seemed like people who come from the States, from the system, who could really put some energy behind this…

It’s easy for someone to say, “Yeah, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re just smoking ganja, dread-locked people, they don’t know what’s happening.”

But I can say, “No, I come from the same thing we all come from.” I’m saying that people need to look more into the unity aspect of life and not so much into this rich and poor, trying to make a consumer of each other.

The world has its seesaw effect and I’m sure and we’ll be returning to that in the near future: That necessity to come together in our communities, to come together as people to help support each other.

Has Groundation ever been criticized by reggae purists for fusing all the different elements you bring to your sound?

I’m sure we have. There are people who definitely say those things. Reggae music itself was born of musicians who came out of Kingston studying jazz music, listening to radio stations from New Orleans, from Miami, U.S. R&B. They had their Calypso in Jamaica. [Which really came from Trinidad.] They kind of fused these things together and created reggae music.

That’s what all music is. Everybody is listening to somebody and is influenced by these artists or these people’s voices and they find their own unique sound. [If] I really wanted to sound like Burning Spear, why would anybody want to see my live when they could go to the store and buy [Burning Spear’s] album? I think it’s a huge thing for a musician and their struggle in life to develop their own unique voice and their original sound. I feel that we’re doing that, and that’s something. If somebody wants to criticize you for that, that’s their thing. If they want to criticize someone for not keeping such-and-such music pure, they can do that, but we’re trying to evolve, to continue the future of music of life. Those two are really inseparable. The music represents the people so I think there’s something worthwhile in picking up that torch and carrying it to a new level.

Is that part of what made Groundation decide to tour world-wide?

That was not a choice. We’re all musicians who love to play music together. We started playing jazz music together in quartets in university. We kind of felt this connection. In 1998 we came together and formed Groundation. Reggae music was my foundation, so we brought everyone together learning roots reggae, learning culture. The Abyssinians, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, all these people. With our jazz voices it came to a new level.

All of a sudden, after our album Hebron Gate (2002) we started getting calls and emails from people in Europe who said, “We want to bring you guys over here to play this music.” We said, “All right!” We never got calls from a United States agency who said, “We want to put you guys on a U.S. tour.” You know? Wow, all right, we this record label in Europe releasing these albums. Great! We have this agency in Europe producing all these tours. All right!

We’ve been fortunate to do about eight tours throughout Europre over the last four or five years. We’ve done three or four tours of South America. We were one of the first and only bands to be welcomed into North Africa, into Morocco. We played in Casablanca. You name a country in Europe and I’m sure we’ve played there, from Sweden to Portugal, from Greece to the U.K., from Italy to France and all over. The opportunity was there and we took it.

This is our first U.S. tour. We’ve been a U.S. band for 10 years and we haven’t gone east of the Rockies. This opportunity and this moment right now: It’s an election year and things are changing. Even though gasoline prices are the highest they’ve ever been, we decided to hop into a big RV and go coast to coast to coast and try to see where we, as Americans are at as far as our social awareness and music.

Are you spreading a message on this tour?

We’re spreading a message as well as learning from the audience. We’re not a typical Rasta group. We’re not here to preach a religion. We’re trying to forward music, trying to show people that the spark of life still exists, that the future is a great thing and a great place, one to be really meditated on.

A spirit of hope for the next generation: We have that spirit while at the same time we want to learn from people that they, too, want to see a good place for their children. The opportunity to meet people and share these energies is a great experience for us. We’re very excited about this, for sure.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about Groundation?

People should know that the concerts and the experience live is a very unique thing. I think that’s why we keep getting welcomed back in Europe. The first time we played in Paris was about four or five years ago was to about 300 people. We played there about two months ago at the Zenith — just Groundation — to 5,000 people.

Our music, live, is a very different thing. We improvise a lot of the time and the energy of the audience is one. We’re not there performing the same show, night after night, trying to perfect this performance. We really want to be there for the people, to communicate these things. The energy on the album is one thing, but the energy live is quite electric.

Groundation (with Chalwa, Hope Massive and Deep Roots) plays Grey Eagle on Sunday, June 29 at 8 p.m. $12 advance, $15 day of show. Info: 232-5800.)

—Alli Marshall

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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