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Deep in roots: Groundation

by Chris Alcantara, A & E editor


Groundation is not your stereotypical roots reggae band, neither in appearance nor background. Yet with the release of its fourth album, We Free Again, and a recent return from a critically acclaimed European tour, Groundation has firmly cemented its place amongst the heavyweights of the modern genre.

Groundation, a name that came from trying to get everyone on the same level so people could talk freely, was formed in the small Northern California town of Sonoma by three aspiring jazz students in 1998.

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“Ryan (Iron) Newman (bass), Marcus Urani (keyboards), and I were all at Cal-State Sonoma to study and major in jazz,” said Harrison Stafford, the group’s singer/songwriter and guitarist. “The way we view jazz music is the same as reggae: this improvised listening, story-telling thing, where we’re not just sitting back and performing, but trying to really experience the moment.”

The three founding members soon added David Chachere on trumpet, Kelsey Howard on trombone, and Paul Spinna on drums in 2001 to round out their jazz-infused style of reggae.

As reggae directly stemmed from the enslavement and oppression of black people, the authenticity of an all white roots reggae band is a legitimate question. But Groundation’s original sound and intensely spiritual and socially conscious lyrics have gained them much respect within the reggae community.

“ We didn’t choose reggae music, reggae music chose us, and we kind of gravitated towards it,” said Stafford. “We were playing jazz combos one minute and the next we were tucked in a little practice room at Sonoma State learning 2 Sevens Clash by Culture, the whole album.”

Stafford recalled reggae as being the first music he ever remembered hearing, as a youth, from his older brother. He attributes his passion for reggae and the apparent understanding of the plight of people in his lyrics, to absorbing some of the true culture of the music by spending time in places such as Jamaica and Africa. A quest to fully understand the origins of the music eventually guided Stafford to become the instructor of the only university-sanctioned class on the history of reggae music ever taught in the United States, at Sonoma State in 1999-2001.

“ It was definitely a tough sell to convince them that the course was valuable to the university and why I was the one fit to teach it,” said Stafford. “I did it for a year and a half, and since the music’s been going strong…that’s where we’ve been. It just so happens the music is taking us around the world.”

While working to establish a solid fan base in North America, Groundation’s message has already hit Europe in a big way. Groundation recently returned from their first European tour in which 17 out of 22 shows were sold out with fans singing their lyrics word for word in English.

“ Europe was great, the people were really ready for some music,” said Urani. “A lot of people had the CD or had heard us on the radio, so they were like ‘we’ve been waiting for you guys to come out.’ There was a great vibe.”

Groundation’s third album, Hebron Gate, was nominated for Germany’s World Music Award in a ceremony compared to the U.S. Grammy’s, establishing them as truly international ambassadors of reggae music.

“ That makes us feel good because we are walking a path that no one’s walked, our own path, and being embraced for it,” said Stafford. “It reassures us that the music is getting to the people, and then we realize that we need to keep going, keep pushing.”

That path has already led them to recording sessions with some of the greatest artists in reggae‘s history. For the most recent album, We Free Again, Groundation enlisted the help of Apple Gabriel, one of the founding members of the legendary reggae super group Israel Vibration. They also once again called upon the unmistakable voice of reggae pioneer Don Carlos, who contributed to the Hebron Gate album as well. Stafford described the two as “amazing” presences he was thankful to have worked with.

“ It really helps us to know that Don and Apple love our sound, our music; and they’re such humble great, great people that have been in the struggle for so long,” said Stafford. The sound that sets Groundation apart, Urani explains, is a stylistic eclecticism between all of the members that gives the band a musical depth to constantly pull from. He says the band communicates through a kind of musical language that, paired with Stafford’s deeply conscious lyrics, creates something that other reggae bands just don’t have.

“ People weep and mourn through music, people rejoice through music, so the music is very serious and quite demanding on people, and so is our lyrics and standpoint socially,” said Stafford.

"But it’s 100 percent, it’s not like a couple of songs divert. This is what we do. We are telling stories that are talking about us, people, a society evolving…consciously, not haphazardly.”

Look for Groundation in a town near you as they will kick off their Music Is The Most High tour with Apple Gabriel and Don Carlos this April before traveling abroad for a series of European shows.

“ The tour with Don and Apple will be a North America tour,” said Urani. “We’d love to be able to come back out to Hawai‘i.”


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