“The Road To ARISE” is a series of conversations writer Brian Turk will be having with ARISE Festival Artists. It is presented by ARISE Music Festival, Oskar Blues Brewery, Listen Up Denver, The Marquee Magazine and Harmony Yoga.
The Road To ARISE Part 4- Groundation
Reggae holds a very special in my heart and has since I was a young child. Let me set the scene and tell you about the first time I heard reggae. I was between six or seven years old in upstate New York, and my Uncle sat me on a footstool in front of his high fidelity stereo system. My uncle was my hero, and still is. He did things differently than a lot of adults around me. He rode a Harley. He smoked lots of marijuana. He married a black woman. He had more records and CD’s than anyone I had ever seen. This was in 1986 or 1987. After sitting me on that footstool, my uncle pulled Steel Pulse’s True Democracy from its sleeve and placed it on the turntable. It was love at first listen for me. The smell of the incense, the oil my aunt used on her skin and the ganja floating through the air still comes back to me when I relive the moment and every time I listen to reggae. My uncle knew what he was doing. He was teaching me. Teaching me to be different, to question, to go my own way, to listen for and to speak the truth, and to do it all with music playing in the background. For the past thirty years I have lived life with that moment as the epicenter of my being. That was the first time I got lost in music. The first time I listened to an album start to finish, and the first time I understood my role, and my calling, as a listener. I try and relive that moment every day, in some way, shape, or form. The music that a lot of people are calling reggae now a days doesn’t allow me to relive that moment, and that fact saddens me. Even angers me at times. Because of that fact, I have avoided modern American reggae like the plague, but once in a while I come across a band that makes me feel like I am sitting on my uncle’s footstool in 1987. One of those bands is Groundation, and I cannot wait to get lost in their set at ARISE. Here is my conversation with Groundation front man Harrison Stafford, a man who has renewed my faith in modern American reggae.
BT: Let’s start with the basics. When, where, why did Groundation get started?
HS: Groundation formed at Sonoma State University in Northern California. We were all studying jazz performance. I wanted to start a special project based on reggae music, which is where I was coming from, but also had a fusion of jazz, and a unique voice. Four of us just started getting together once a week in the drum room, playing songs by Culture, Israel Vibrations, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, etc. Reggae music was my background, but everyone else didn’t know much more than Bob Marley, so we started just playing the classics. We recorded our first album, Young Tree, just a few months after forming the group. Our professor, Mel Graves, was always talking about the need to find your own voice. If you are a trumpet player, you are competing with Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. So what is going to make someone listen to you? He told us that’s what we needed to find out. So from our first albums, Young Tree, Each One Teach One, and Hebron Gate, which was really the album that launched us internationally, the music began to become very identifiable as Groundation. We were doing things no other reggae band was doing. The polyrhythmic things, things that were not in the common 4/4 time signature. Things that were not diatonically in the key. A lot of harmonic movements like jazz, and that really set us apart. It was that sound that the Europeans and the South Americans really grabbed on to, and that sound has helped us become an internationally known group over the past sixteen years.
BT: You said you came to Groundation with a reggae background, but you were studying jazz with your bandmates in college. When did your love of reggae start?
HS: My older brother was listening to reggae music when he was very young, so I was five or six when I started listening to reggae. Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer, Black Uhuru. Ziggy Marley was very popular, and was just starting to come out. I fell in love with reggae immediately. My parents moved to California from the East Coast, and I was raised in a Jewish home, so I was going to temple and learning Hebrew as a child. Of course, none of my friends were Jewish since we lived in Sonoma County. I wondered why I was traveling an hour to temple three days a week and every weekend, and I didn’t understand, none of my other friends were doing that. So, reggae music was that voice of the children of Israel, Moses and Aaron; I heard a lot of the same names at temple. Reggae music was personal music for me, so I have carried that connection with me throughout my life. I also got the opportunity to start traveling to St.Ann’s Bay, Jamaica at a very young age, through Jamaican families who were taking care of my grandparents when they were passing away. In the late 1980’s I started going to St.Ann’s Bay during the winters and summers, and grew up with the kids my age there. I really made a connection to Jamaica early, and to the Rastafari elders there, which was really big. Here was this Jewish kid from the tribe of Levi, the Cohanim Priesthood tribe, and they sat me right down to reason with me. I was really welcomed, and it caused me to open my eyes to the whole philosophy of Rasta; oneness, putting out positive energy, deflection to the earth. I loved and admired that philosophy from the start, and I carry that with me today. A lot of my friends from St. Ann’s Bay have migrated to the United States or the UK, but I still have my place in Lime Hall in Saint Ann’s Bay. My wife is from Kingston, and even though we spend most of our time with our children in California, we are very much based in Jamaica, as well. My roots in Jamaica are crucial to get the Rasta word, sound, and power from where it all began. You need to be there to get that. That’s what fuels Groundation’s music. Staying grounded in Jamaica, and with the elders. Reggae music has really been a lifelong thing for me.
BT: I think it has to be, in order for real reggae music to be made. Reggae is a spiritual music. It is a form of prayer. There is no way around that fact. A lot of music is being called reggae music now-a-days, but unless the music is made with a spiritual approach, it’s not reggae to me. I listened to Groundation for the first time last week, and I will be honest, I was surprised to hear that authentic reggae presence in the music. The spiritual side. The Rastafari wisdom.
HS: For sure. That spirituality is something we are all going to have to come to in life. Whether you call it Rasta or not. There are nations fighting nations. The health and the welfare of our planet is struggling. That Rasta philosophy is something that people are going to need to latch on to.
BT: Since the word “Rasta” has come up, let’s make some clarifications to the reader. Most people are going to immediately think of copious amounts of marijuana.
HS: Which is funny, because there are so many elder Rasta who do not smoke.
BT: So what is the essence of Rasta?
HS: The essence are the teaching of Haile Selassie I. Haile Selassie went from nation to nation, and his main focus was we were all one people, and we have responsibility to each other. Selassie would say in his speeches that human kind has its most difficult task ahead of it. It has to step beyond everything we see and know. All of our education, everything that puts into these tribes, and these allegiances to flags and colors. In reality, our allegiance is to the whole human race. To me, that is the essence of Rasta. To be there with love and positive energy to help your fellow human being survive this struggle of life. Obviously, there is great inequality happening on the planet. That is the struggle. The Babylon System is what keeps people craving with vanity and greed, wanting more. But to stop Babylon is to say, NO!, What we need are schools and education for all people. In Rasta, you as an individual is very important. You are a waking image of Jah, but really our beauty comes from being just a small part of this greater, beautiful whole. You are a part of this one world family. It’s a oneness thing. No division in Rasta.
BT: Agreed. Again, for clarification, let’s talk about the term “Babylon”. To me, Babylon is the modern world. It’s the atrocities of war, our banking system, our corporate society, and our prison empires. How do you define the term Babylon?
HS: Yeah, Babylon is all of that. To me, Babylon is everything negative. Babylon is everything that is not helpful to people to build them up. That is Babylon. For example, McDonalds is like the Babylon of food. It’s cheap, but it is not going to serve you in the long run. It’s not going to build you up. Babylon is like a trick. It’s making you believe life is about possessions and outside beauty. The ancient Rasta, who refuse and turn their backs on Babylon, they live in the bush, off the land. So much of life is really touched by Babylon, so they needed to separate. So, yes, Babylon can be seen as the Western world. But all the negatives of Babylon can be turned into positives.
BT: It is so refreshing to hear this coming out of your mouth. I have very strong opinions on what is being called reggae in the United States. I too was exposed to reggae at a very young age, about the same time you were. I remember my uncle playing Steel Pulse’s True Democracy for me when I was a kid, and my ears and mind opened to it. Widely. I grew up on real roots reggae. I grew up listening to amazing musicians, and prophetic lyricists, who were living very hard lives, and who were fighting against Babylon. The United States has a booming “reggae” scene right now, but it’s mostly watered down, bubble-gum SoCal surf rock with some reggae riffs as a mask. None of this is reggae to me, and I don’t like it. What I am hearing is disrespectful to the cornerstone of roots reggae.
HS: I would say that’s a reflection of our entire music industry right now. What you are talking about is pop music. When I listened to country music when I was a kid, it was Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash. If you listen to country today, it sounds very different. It’s the same with blues and R&B. It’s all become pop. Reggae has become a product, just like everything else. That’s why you hear a lot of “reggae” songs talking about how they smoked weed and got “so high”, or how they are on the beach with their girl. These real light three minute songs that are cheesy. It is not saying what reggae is supposed to say. It’s a very soft interpretation. Groundation, what we do, I know, carries the foundation, the torch, of real reggae. If you listen to ANY of our albums, you will not hear songs like I just described. You will hear one-drop music. A lot of people now play back-beat, or rock-beat. Real Jamaican reggae is the one drop. Reggae music has suffered at the hand of the music industry. They want bands to make a product people can BBQ, drink beer, and go to the beach to. Maybe they will play some Sublime, too. That’s not what you and I grew up with, but it’s what people know as reggae now. Real roots reggae music, like you and I are talking about, has a clear message. And the message is against the system. People just don’t know enough about reggae. Imagine going to a record store, and Led Zeppelin being the only band in the rock section. That’s what it is like for reggae, because most people only know Bob Marley. That has certainly hurt reggae music and its overall exposure. Reggae music has a challenge, because it is a really simple music. Some people upon first listening find it “boring”. But as a musician, even if you are not trained, it is easy to start playing as soon as you hear it. That’s why reggae music is all over the world. As a musician who has studied jazz, I can recognize that reggae sounds simple, but it’s hard to play. Like Bob Marley say, “Them do it, but dem can’t do it”. They got it, but they don’t really got it. Reggae sounds easy, and you can do an approximation, but you don’t have that same feel. Like you said, for some people, they listen to reggae, and they were caught. Reggae will never leave them for the rest of their lives. It pumps through their heart and blood. For others, they can’t get past the simplicity.
BT: You said a lot of good stuff there. “Them do it, but dem can’t do it”. Yeah you right. I went to Reggae on The Rocks a couple of years ago, and it really rubbed me the wrong way. Seeing the stark contrast between the masters of real reggae and the commercial pop bands trying to play reggae, and claiming to play reggae, well, it actually nauseated me. Especially when the young commercial bands were taking the stage after the masters. I found it very disrespectful. How can a bubble gum band headline over founding fathers? Over the sages? I have avoided this new “reggae like” genre like the plague. I turn to reggae for a reason. I don’t need some beach bum in skater shoes singing dumbed-down lyrics about taking bong hits in the sunshine, and calling it reggae. I want to hear something powerful. I want to be moved. I want to chant down Babylon! All that being said…that’s why I reached out to you to do this interview. You speak the truth. Thank you. So after that rant, here is the question, how do you keep authenticity in your music, while being surrounded by such shit?
HS: We as a band have a pretty large distaste for pop music, as well. So, even if one of us was going to write something similar to a song you are talking about, another one of us would tear it up. We are looking for things that are unique and original. We are not worried on how the record will sell. We are doing this because the mission of music is going to unite the people of the world. And we want to be a part of that. That is the only focus. ALL of our songs talk about the future, building up our children, and talking about how to reach THE goal; unity, love, equality, and love for this planet. We play one-drop music. We don’t come from the Sublime side of what some call reggae. When Sublime came out with “Pawn Shop”, all my friends loved it, but it was really an old Wailing Souls song. I told my friends that those people were not writing those songs, and I would play them the original song. Those new bands, like Sublime, sold millions of albums, but the original artists were struggling day to day in Jamaica. I did a documentary film called Holding On To Jah, which is a history of Jamaica and the Rasta movement, as told by the singers and musicians who were in Jamaica in 1966 to see Selassie come to the island. That’s when a lot of people began to grow the locks. We have an Indie Go Go campaign right now to try and raise the licensing fees for all the original songs in the movie.
As you just read, Groundation is the real deal, and they are grounded in the real roots of reggae. If you are a lover of authentic reggae, and appreciate reggae with a message beyond how cool the beach is, then get grounded in Groundation. It is no surprise their name is a play on Grounation Day, which is one of the most important Rasta Holy Days. Grounation Day celebrates the day King Selassie first set foot on the island of Jamaica in 1966, and they try to capture that historic moment in every note.