By Shelah Moody
They don’t call him the professor for nothing.
Two weeks before the Sept. 21 release his 14th full-length album, “Groundation: The Next Generation,” Island Stage sat down with Harrison Stafford, the band’s brilliant lead singer, producer and lyricist at a local café in Oakland, CA. As the former Sonoma State University professor explained, “Groundation, The Next Generation” is a project rooted in history, culture and love. One could say that Groundation embodies all that is good and righteous about northern California: we are eclectic, we practice inclusion, not exclusion, we are tech savvy yet earth conscious and outspoken yet truthful. And we are brave”.
Island Stage: Let’s start with a tribute to one of your musical ancestors who recently passed – Aretha Franklin. Give us your reflections on the Queen of Soul.
Harrison Stafford: She was a wonderful human being and a gifted singer; a powerful singer. You really felt the spirit in her voice. I think that’s what everyone connected to instantly. It’s a big loss, but her life and her gifts were such a great gain; gifts that are all here to enjoy and to celebrate.
IS: I really noticed the power of your vocals when I heard you scat singing on “Fossil Fuels.” How did you develop your unique vocal style?
HS: I don’t really know, I mean it’s still developing, I hope! I draw inspiration from other singers, from nature; from trying to do things differently. That’s kind of the sound of Groundation; we try to things that maybe aren’t radio friendly or maybe they are not hooks that are used to sell records. I think my style has developed from that; from trying to figure out rhythms and melodies and patterns that might be different and challenging. That’s what makes me stand out, I feel.
IS: Tell us about your experience performing at Rototom Sunsplash during your summer European tour.
HS: Wonderful. We have performed through Rototom many times. It’s been in Italy before, and this year, it was in Spain. This was the 25th anniversary of Rototom. It was very special to take that stage as Groundation, The Next Generation, with new music and a new spirit. It was a joy. It was a great crowd. Reggae music brings people seeking love and togetherness, people who are trying to overcome obstacles, so it’s a beautiful crowd.
IS: What other European concert dates stood out for you?
HS: It was our first time ever in Sardinia, an island in the Mediterranean, and also, the Azores, which are Portuguese islands which are quite a ways into the Atlantic. I never dreamed of going there. France has always been a great home for us, so the No Logo festival and these types of shows are really great stages. It was very special.
IS: Tell us about the concept of “Groundation: The Next Generation.”
HS: It’s like a rebirth and it’s sticking to the same principles. As I was saying earlier, Groundation has a particular sound. It’s polyrhythmic, jazz fusion with the harmony structures and some through composed longer songs, which can be up to six or seven minutes; and long solos. That is our sound and that is what moves me and inspires me. That’s what The Next Generation is bringing. At the same time, we’re coming from “A Miracle,” the album before, which is about the female, the empress, the mother of creation; and so comes The Next Generation, the child. All of the songs are like little tools and things that we are trying to pass on, to them to help give them strength and prosperity for the future.
IS: Tell us about the new members—the next generation of Groundation.
HS: There’s a great balance. Actually, there are more Jamaicans in the group. The whole group is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are four Jamaicans in the group and four Californians, and Eduardo, the lead guitarist, is Brazilian. I’ve met them through different paths and different projects. They are all brilliant musicians and they really are excited. Everybody is really excited to take on this challenge, because Groundation has great musicians. That’s what we’ve been known for. We have to live up to that standard that was set, giving thanks to the previous musicians and moving forward with new and brilliant energy.
IS: Tell us about the opening track “Vanity.”
HS: It’s a big band song. It a song that I’ve been inspired to do for years and years, and I was finally able to achieve it. Five saxophones, four trumpets, three trombones–12 horns! The song begins with a single note saxophone, and all 12 notes come in this crunch of the 12-note system, into the song “Vanity.” And the lyric, my part, my lead vocal, doesn’t come in for two and a half minutes. It’s this big band, horn arrangement that leads into the vocal and it sets the stage. “Vanity has made this world condemned/You can see it in the people of today/Pure Babylon wickedness on parade…” This album is talking serious about what’s going on today.
IS: Ok, let’s talk about the next track, “One But Ten.”
HS: Yeah, that I feel, has a big Groundation sound. It has a big organ solo, it ends with drums and organs soloing, trading fours. It’s very jazzy and expressive and alive. And the song is very serious. It’s about earth and changes. Some changes happen slowly. Some changes happen quickly. The song is about the ever changing balance.
IS: How about “New Life…”
HS: “New Life” is the longest song on the album. It’s seven minutes. It’s about democracy; it’s about politics; it’s about the wrongs that have happened in the past. It’s about honoring those who come from suffering and difficult places in the world, in Syria, Libya, etc., honoring that they need a home and a place and a new life. “Out of this democracy and politics comes a scattering of human beings searching for a new life.” Healing is necessary.
IS: And “Warrior Blues?”
HS: “Warrior Blues…” It’s about the struggle. In the intro, the song features a portion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech, telling us that we are gonna make it, maybe not in my time, but I know that we’re gonna make it.
IS: “Lion in Man?”
HS: “Lion in Man” is about overcoming difficulties and being focused on raising your family and being disciplined. You have to be strong in this life to be a lion in man. It’s a balance as well, knowing that you’re gonna fall in life and be prepared to stand back up.
IS: Tell us about the significance of the lion image in Rastafari culture.
HS: The lion is man. The Conquering Lion of Judah, of course, is coming from the Bible, it’s John’s revelation about Haile Selassie. The lion is a crucial part of Rasta imagery because of that. But the lion is fierce—king of the jungle. But the lion also needs to command respect.
IS: “Prophets and Profit…”
HS: Yeah, we are looking at the wrong “profits.” You see what’s going on; you see what’s making big money. We see war. We see prisons. We see all of these things that function as our biggest industries. The song is speaking about these times, when there’s so much profit; business making billions of dollars yet poverty is increasing. So in this time of great profit, we don’t listen to the prophets who spoke of helping out the poor and investing in humans.
IS: What about “Hero…”
HS: “Hero” is talking about the divisions of people, it’s speaking about religion, but it’s speaking about life, about Jah; about this spirit that belongs to everybody. It’s not a religion. You can’t write it down in a book. The only guest vocalist, Helio Bentes of Ponto Equilibrio, a big band in Brazil, appears on “Hero.” He comes from the favelas, where there is poverty in Brazil. The song is showing us that no matter what, we are together and goodness is a part of every culture and every religion. We recorded it all through his studio in Brazil and our studio in California. My previous album, “Brain Damage,” which we did in France, was done completely online. (Technology) is part of our lives. The thing is, are we gonna use the tools to advance us or are we gonna use them to imprison us.”
IS: Which leads us to my favorite track on “The Next Generation,” “Fossil Fuels.”
HS: Like “Vanity,” I’ve had that idea for years. “Get off your fossil fuels, you fools, wake up and think ahead, young dread,” was a thing that I first did in Humboldt, CA, for a benefit. Coming from California, we’ve talked about the idea of carbon emissions and global warming because of the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by the burning of oil and coal. We’ve talked about it on other albums, that we can’t turn a wrong thing into a right thing. So the minute that you see something is wrong with the environment, causing catastrophic changes in our climate, we have to stop. It might be painful, but we have to stop.
IS: Tell us about the track “My Shield.”
HS: “My Shield” is letting the next generation know that they should be strong and have faith. Faith that Jah’s spirit and goodness will protect you in rough times, as a shield. For me, a lot of Jah and the Spirit comes through music. The song is also talking about the power of music and how it can really lift you up and take you to places that you’ve never thought you would reach.
IS: “Try Me.”
HS: “Try Me” is about discipline as well. It’s about the great joy of giving and sharing and being part of a collective and being truthful and upright. In the song, I’m saying, try me, I really want to do my best. Challenge me to do more and to be a better person.
IS: And now for the closing track and one of the most poignant songs on the album, “Father and Child.”
HS: It’s a song I’ve had for a while as well, an acoustic song. It’s such a slow tempo; it’s not a reggae song, you can’t play it in one drop. (Sings) “As a newborn opens up their eyes…” I would call it a ballad; a traditional ballad. I’ve performed the song live, acoustically, on some encores. In October, we are planning to do the whole album from front to back live on our European tour.
IS: You told me that your next recording will focus on the subject of race. Have you, personally, experienced any forms of racism?
HS: Sure, I can give you one example. I remember that when I was a kid, our synagogue was spray painted a couple of times. We would be going to synagogue and they would have the “caution” tape around it. As a kid, I didn’t really understand it, but I saw the swastika. In Hebrew school, we learned a lot about the Holocaust. A lot of our people came to the U.S. from that. You know those symbols. I knew that the synagogue was damaged or looted. It’s a part of our world.
IS: On Instagram, you and your wife refer to your children as “#Jewmaicans.” Where did you come up with that term?
HS: It comes from the union of a Jewish person and a Jamaican. For me, it makes you look at this concept of race; this thing that divides us and puts us in categories; and what is it to teach my children about race. Coming from a west African/Caribbean/Christian and an eastern European/Jewish heritage. We are trying to keep the culture alive, and trying to respect the traditions. I’m not sure what role that modern religion is gonna take in my children’s lives.
IS: You produced a brilliant album called “Itinuation” for Pablo Moses and as well as an insightful film called “Holding On To Jah.” Are there any other reggae legends who you would like to collaborate with?
HS: Always! The great Burning Spear, for one.
IS: In closing, is there anything else you would like to say to your supporters?
HS: I do want to make it clear that I give thanks to the previous musicians. This band Groundation, it’s not just me, it’s not a new thing. Groundation is a oneness, created by the musicians who are in the group. Even though the songwriting comes from me, the ideas and the concepts come from somewhere, and everybody contributes. We have to give thanks and honor the past musicians, because they, like the new musicians, are part of the sound.
Meet the members of Groundation: The Next Generation:
Harrison Stafford – lead vocals, rhythm guitar, Nyabinghi drums, percussion
Jake Shandling – drums
Isaiah Porter – bass
Eduardo Gross – lead guitar
Will Blades – organ, clarinet
Craig Berletti – piano
Roger Cox – saxophone
Alreca Smith – harmony vocals
Brady Shammar – harmony vocals