Who would have thought the future of roots reggae would come from a bunch of white Californian college students? Introducing Groundation!
Harrison, Marcus, could you maybe first introduce yourselves?
Harrison Stafford: "Sure, my name is Harrison Stafford, I play guitar and sing in Groundation. We're happy to be here, touring around Europe and experiencing the people."
Marcus Urani: "Marcus Urani, I play keyboards and Europe has been very very good to us indeed."
I read on your website that you guys met while studying jazz at Sonoma State University in California. Could you briefly explain how jazz musicians converted to playing reggae?
Harrison Stafford: "I guess I would be the main instigating force what the reggae part of Groundation is concerned, but we were playing together since we arrived at university, playing jazz but also playing other kinds of music. Reggae music is kind of where I come from. It's the first music I ever heard, it's the music that I fell in love with. By talking to Marcus and to Ryan (Newman, bass, red.) about starting something serious, we all seemed to agree. Of course jazz stays one of our main influences, since that's what our backgrounds are."
Marcus Urani: "What we did is apply the concepts we learned in our jazz education and apply them to reggae, thus creating our own version of the music. The music is us, it's who we are. By knowing each other very well and studying together we were able to explore the music a lot further."
Harrison Stafford: "To us as musicians it's really not that far a stretch to go from jazz to reggae. Some people ask: "Wow from jazz to reggae, that's so different, how do you do that?", but for us the two aren't really that different. It's pretty much the same inspiration, the same vibration that‘s behind the music."
What is the reggae scene in California like? Is it big? Or is it more dancehall oriented?
Harrison Stafford: "Roots music is alive and well in California, but there's dancehall to of course. Reggae music in general is definitely embraced by a lot of Californians. A lot of Jamaicans also live there. We have two big areas, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where people from all walks of life come together and reggae is that consciousness and awareness of a world, a togetherness that is beyond national lines and California is definitely embracing that concept."
You just mentioned a lot of Jamaicans actually live in California. On your new album, 'We Free Again', you are collaborating with Don Carlos for the second time now and on a previous album you worked with Ras Michael. How did those collaborations come to life? How did you meet up?
Harrison Stafford: "I travelled to Jamaica at a young age and had met up with these elder musicians who I certainly loved to be around and they for whatever reason appreciated my presence and I was very welcoming to that. Don Carlos though was something that Jim Fox, our engineer, lined up. Everything for this album has kind of worked out perfectly. I had a closer relationship with other artists, but now Don Carlos has become a friend. We love playing music together. We push him and we learn so much from him again in turn. It's all about playing roots reggae and try to push it musically, but at the same time embracing its culture and its heritage, and what better way then to ask these musicians and hope that they would honour us with their presence during our recording sessions and in the future hopefully even at our live shows. It's been a great experience for us to learn. What better way to establish yourself in reggae music then to talk to the elders?"
Listening to certain tracks on the album was almost like listening to a new Israel Vibration album featuring Harrison Stafford. Were all the members of Israel Vibration present?
Harrison Stafford: "(laughs) It was just Apple (Gabriel, red.), but we have had close relationships with Wiss and Skelly for a long while. Apple is a huge force in Israel Vibration. When it was still the three of them, they were a huge strong sound. A lot of these backing vocals and of these textured classic Israel vibes were Apple, so having him present was almost like having Israel Vibration."
You're also known as 'prof.' or 'the professor' because you were the first one to teach a course on the history of reggae music at a university level. Was it a success and are you still continuing on that path as well?
Harrison Stafford: "It was very much a success and I would like to continue it but music is what it's all about and the message in Groundation is what it's all about so since our music has progressed and we've been pushing it along, and trying to focus more on recording the albums and distributing them and touring the world trying to meet the people who love our music, that has taken over from being there at university for four month blocks and teach for a semester. I would like to do it, but at the same time it was hard work to get it admitted in the curriculum, and I'm sure that today with budget cuts and so on, this course would be one of the first to go. I also don't really envisage myself as being in front of a classroom for the rest of my life. My mission in life at this moment is to play music."
Do you guys consider yourselves to be reggae musicians plain and simple or does the element of Rastafarianism play a role?
Harrison Stafford: "I would not affiliate myself with any organisation. Rastafari was a part of my growing up. I learned a lot from people like Mortimer Planno, people who enriched my life with the values that I hold dear. At the same time I shaped my own vision of things. Certain things in Rastafarianism grab me more than others. I don't really think it is important just to focus on one thing, because to me each individual has a different way of thinking and of living, and that still evolves too."
One can not deny the way you look: you have a beard and wear a turban. Did that look spur any reactions after the events of 9/11?
Harrison Stafford: "Well it's funny that as time passes, events take place we in Groundation come together, create music and so on, but it seems that "time" or "the present" is always a little bit behind on whatever meditation we would be in at that moment. So it's strange how things work out. Like we can be touring the States or Europe now and people might be asking: "Is that guy Taliban or something?" But that is part of that direct conflict that is going on, but we are here to love and to try to get to a better understanding, a better state of being. People judging somebody on the way he or she looks, or on where he or she comes from, that is the battle we are fighting. What my looks are concerned, I see it as a stirring up of the fire."
This is your first European tour. How has the response been so far?
Harrison Stafford: "Not bad. (laughter) Each show has been great. There hasn't been one show were there hasn't been a big crowd of people who know our music, love Groundation and who understand and hear from our music that we want to push things. We are trying to play music because we love it; we are not trying to make money or get the next radio hit or sell a million albums. We are trying to create music that we can be behind and love."
The new album, ‘We Free Again', is released in collaboration with Nocturne in France, where also most of your concerts were staged in this tour. How did you start collaborating?
Harrison Stafford: "It just so happened that the sub licenser of our label Young Tree in the U.S. is Nocturne, who are based in France. The album has done very well and we wanted to get a tour going. Then we were approached by the people of Music Action, also based in France, who proposed some dates and got us plane tickets, and that really started the ball rolling. And it's their territory so we go where they tell us to go. (laughs) Hopefully next time we will be able to see a lot more people from a lot more countries in Europe."
The whole reggae and dancehall music scene was recently at the focus of attention with singers like Capleton and Sizzla having to cancel their concerts because of protests by gay rights groups like Outrage. Where do you stand in that whole gay rights versus freedom of speech issue?
Harrison Stafford: "On the one hand it is freedom of speech, you sing about whatever you want to sing about, but on the other hand it is reggae music, of which you hope that it will always keep that positive light glowing. It's difficult; you can see both sides very clearly. If you talk about us personally, we would never do it. We are 100% positive and that should stay our focus. They obviously have their beliefs and want to record it, but it naturally will offend the people that they are confronting. It's unfortunate that Capleton had to cancel most of his tour he had prepared for California because of the backlash. That is the whole 'We Free Again'-thing you know; we try to focus on the music and relate that consciousness to the public. We believe that even if Groundation is now getting around, there is still so much more out there."
Has Groundation performed in Jamaica yet, and if not is that an aspiration?
Harrison Stafford: "If it comes up, it would be great. We have a lot of Jamaicans in California that love our music; in the area we come from, Oakland and Berkley, there's a big Jamaican community that supports us. It would be difficult, because you can't really tour Jamaica, so you can't really make that much money to support flying out there and all of us are poor struggling musicians; so if we wanted to go there even for a vacation, we couldn't afford it."
Here in Belgium a lot of the young musicians with a jazz education often try to play in as many bands as possible just to make a living. Is that the same for the musicians in Groundation?
Harrison Stafford: "Sure, for some of them, but the focus has to be Groundation. You have to make a living and what better way to do it than to play music? I'm not personally involved in other bands, but if you can do it and you're still progressing and evolving musically, then by all means. It's better that than perhaps having to seek a job in the corporate world where you are not playing music at all."
Marcus Urani: "Groundation has been getting a lot bigger. We've been doing our own tours, so when before we might have done other stuff to fill the gaps so to speak, these things now have dropped off. When we did the album this time, we spent five months in the studio, so there was little time left."
Harrison Stafford: "And that's exactly how we like it, don't get us wrong. (laughs)"
Marcus Urani: "Playing in other bands would be more like a job to me, whilst playing in Groundation is like a constant exploration to see where we have a lot of ideas and stuff we want to do and we've only hit the tip of the iceberg on that."
I would like to confront you with a couple of names. You can just respond what they mean to you. Let's start with: California?
Harrison Stafford: "Home, it is the base, where our struggle lies. California is a nice free place, but it's right in the United States and that "system" is always there around you. To me it's like two worlds: it has beauty, everything is there in California, mountains, the beach, the desert, but at the same time you're right in the heart of the greedy "system"."
Harrison Stafford: "Life! Music is the heart, the beat, it's vibrations. Music is communication. Music is to me that what makes us move, what gives us life."
George W. Bush?
Harrison Stafford: "(laughs) He's very childlike, uneducated for the most part. He has nice credentials, went to nice universities but he doesn't really understand basic, fundamental social issues that are extremely important when leading a nation. We definitely do not support his ways and views. Groundation has a basic anti-war stand; that is an obvious intelligent thought that could easily be explored as opposed to the opposite! George Bush is playing a game politically. Economy wise he is doing in his head what he thinks he has to do, but it doesn't seem to be working for a vast majority of people."
Harrison Stafford: "That's something completely different! (laughs) Bob Marley is one of the sources. There are many sources for music and for spirit and for life. When I say source, I mean someone who was able to create and really found her or his voice in the time they were given. He's a continuing source for those coming after him. He's kind of like a flowing river that's always there to replenish your spirit."
As a last one: Groundation?
Harrison Stafford: "Togetherness! Getting grounded. We are really trying to look into the heart of things and push music and push society and try to push people. That is the gift the greats were able to give and it would be really nice if we could grasp these things and push them forward. Groundation is moving forward. At a time where so many things seem to be at a standstill or moving into a direction that might not really be beneficial for humans, Groundation is a force against that."
Any famous last words for our reading audience?
Harrison Stafford: "Just stay strong and we hope that one day we'll have the opportunity to meet everyone live in concert to experience the music together. That is the best kind of music, when you have a house full of people moving, dancing and sharing the vibrations. We would love nothing more than link up and touch each individual. Just hold that strength and hopefully we will be able to evolve so that our children will be seeing a different world where we'll be together as opposed to being separate countries and separate people."