Up Close and Personal with Harrison Stafford
By Shelah Moody
Photos by Lee Abel Photography
When you think of Harrison Stafford, Bob Marley’s song “Easy Skankin” comes to mind.
Watching him open for Bunny Wailer at the Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, backed by an upcoming reggae band from Santa Cruz, CA called Pure Roots, singing and dancing with a joyous spirit, I wondered how a young Jewish man from Alameda County could move so freely and comfortably between Jamaican and American cultures, between elders and upstarts, between princes and paupers.
Perhaps it’s because the singer/songwriter/guitarist, best known as the front man for the California reggae band Groundation, was blessed with not only an expansive knowledge of music, but also with a with a rare sense of humility and meliorism–the doctrine that the world tends to become better or may be made better by human effort. Stafford is an artist who talks the talk and walks the walk.
With the release of his third solo album, “One Dance,” and his provocative new documentary, “Holding On to Jah,” Stafford, 39, aims to keep Jamaican music, history and culture alive while pushing boundaries and limitations.
Stafford was born in Livermore, CA and raised in the affluent community of Pleasanton which is now one of the hearts of the tech industry. His mother was an elementary school teacher and his father worked for General Electric and played jazz piano. The elder Stafford had a great love for black music and culture as well as a huge vinyl collection which included the likes of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and the Count Basie Orchestra.
Stafford still treasures his memories of late night listening sessions with his dad.
At age seven, Stafford’s older brother introduced him to reggae music and Rastafari culture and his world view expanded as he listened to Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Peter Tosh and Culture. Harrison began doing classroom presentations in grade school about Rastafari and Bob Marley, and his Bar Mitzvah theme would be Jamaica. A chance meeting of a boy from Jamaica by Harrison’s parents would form a life long friendship between the two and Harrison would spend some winters and summers with him at his mother’s house in St. Ann’s Bay, JA, where he would walk past Marcus Garvey’s birthplace almost everyday.
“I thought, where is the justice in the world, said Stafford. “People have billions of dollars and yet others have no food to eat or a house to sleep in. I thought, something’s not right, because one life is worth everything to the individual, whether you’re the richest person or the poorest person. It seems to me that we have to do a heck of a lot better and do a lot more work to help balance the world and see more equality for the people.”
In 1999, while studying jazz at Sonoma State University in Northern California, Stafford developed a course called “The History of Reggae Music.” He would bring in guest lecturers such as as one of his mentors and friend, the late Joseph Hill of Culture. Concurrently, Stafford formed the group Groundation with his contemporaries Ryan Newman (bass), and Marcus Urani (keyboards), creating a sound that incorporated one drop reggae, jazz fusion, ska, and funk. Ironically, Groundation would become the leader of a new movement called California Roots, which set the tone for American bands such as Rebelution, Tribal Seeds, Fortunate Youth, and the Green. “Grounation” is considered a Rastafarian holy day celebrated on April 21; it commemorates Haile Selassie’s first visit to Jamaica in 1966. In 2001, Stafford put the “History of Reggae Music” course on pause and went on the road with Groundation, but his nickname “Professor” stayed with him.
“After the release of Groundation’s third album, ‘Hebron Gate,’ in 2002, I put a lot of energy into finding all of the links in Europe and South America and sending the album all over the place,” said Stafford. “Hebron Gate’ really sparked a fire in Europe–France and Germany and also in Brazil. During those times, we were a part of forging an international movement of roots reggae”.
With Groundation, Stafford has recorded 11 albums performed throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America, Australia and New Zealand. They have played large scale festivals such as Caliroots (Monterey), Monterey Bay Reggaefest, Outside Lands (San Francisco), Reggae on the River (Humboldt County, CA), and the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival (Boonville, CA). With Groundation, Stafford also got the opportunity to record with some of the artists he had idolized as a youth including Judy Mowatt, Marcia Griffith and drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, star of the film “Rockers.”
“Touring California and other parts of the west coast and Hawaii was part of our building stage,” said Stafford. “Our sound is not the three-minute pop song; it’s not so easily digested. I started Groundation as a roots reggae group which was coming from the foundation of Rastafari and the struggle for equal rights and justice. Our focus was not on love songs or ganja songs. I wanted to form something that was roots reggae yet incorporated all of our influences, especially coming from the jazz department. It’s really not what the American market is used to. The international market, including Europe, is more used to the fusion, polyrhythmic odd harmonic movements; things that are creative and different as opposed to simplified and repetitive.
I was, through Groundation, and I still am, in search of a new form of music.”
As a musician and a musicologist, Stafford considered it important that Groundation tour with a full horn section—trombone, sax and trumpet, which is part of the foundation of ska and roots reggae.
“Trombone, saxophone and trumpet—the three of them are like the power of the Trinity,” said Stafford. “With the Professor Crew, some things have horns, some things don’t, but with Groundation, I really wanted to have the horns. I wasn’t into the eighties sound of synthesized horns, you know, hiring one musician to play three horn parts on a little keyboard, and having it sound all thin and compressed, and maybe they’re playing horn lines that are out of the range of the actual instruments so it sounds funny. Having three horns is true harmony; it’s like having three vocalists; because you can’t define a chord without having at least three notes.”
As a reggae singer, Stafford wanted to be a part of the struggle towards equal rights and justice. He wanted to be a part of a struggle against a system based on a foundation of greed and materialism. Stafford wanted to change the paradigm, and with his educational background and resources, he felt he had the right tools to work within the system to make these changes come about.
Was it irony, or divine intervention that one of America’s biggest music icons—Prince, left the earthly realm on April 21, Grounation Day? Indeed, Prince’s death sparked a global conversation about the preservation and protection of our musical traditions, our elders and artistic leaders and, the importance of music ownership.
Which brings us to “One Dance,” the third album from Harrison and the Professor Crew, scheduled for release on May 13. In 2011, Stafford traveled to Jamaica to record the first album, “Madness” with his dream team, a legendary group of musicians and Rastafari elders including Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, on drums, Errol “Flabba Holt” Carter on bass, Lloyd “Obeah” Denton on keyboards and Dalton Browne on lead and rhythm guitar. In 2012, Harrison Stafford and the Professor Crew produced a live DVD/CD “Throw Down Your Arms,” these first two releases focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The 12-track “One Dance” is a soulful mix of roots reggae, ska, dub, rockers and of course, protest music.
“Recording ‘One Dance’ was an awesome experience, very magical,” said Stafford, who has been recording in Jamaica’s studios such as Harry J’s and Tuff Gong in Kingston, for more than 15 years. “I knew what to expect and how to run the sessions smoothly. These are masters; they have been recording this reggae music for more than five decades so they know how to get the job done right the first time. I knew if I did my homework and got the songs ready, we could record all the basic tracks in one day. Every time I play music, it is touching and spiritual and with this crew of musicians; we are all instantly together as one energy.”
He is taking the show on the road, following the release of “One Dance,” Harrison Stafford and the Professor Crew will embark on a tour this summer, starting with Europe. “Horsemouth is a great musician and very creative behind the drums,” said Stafford. “Working with him is such an honor I can’t say enough. He really is a part of the roots of the music and comes from the Rasta faith where every beat of his drum is to mash down the walls of Babylon and as a singer, it is beautiful to sing with that as the foundation groove. Dalton Browne is a professional and a master craftsman of the studio. Dalton makes his final guitar arrangement of a song lift the piece to its fullest potential. The one word that comes to mind when I think of Flabba Holt is ‘heavy.’ Flabba just does it. He sits down in the studio, doesn’t say much, and plays the deepest groove possible on any given style of Jamaican music.”
This fall, Stafford will also embark on a lecture tour with “Holding on to Jah,” which documents the history of the Rastafari movement beginning with Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966. “Holding on to Jah” is narrated by the who’s who of reggae including the late Joseph Hill, the Congos, Abyssinians, Ras Michael, Rocky Bailey, Brother Samuel Clayton, Pablo Moses, Israel Vibration, Don Carlos, I Jahman Levi, Countryman, and Winston McAnuff among many others. “Holding on to Jah” was 12-year collaboration with Stafford’s long time childhood friend, director Roger Hall. The film was recently released on DVD and began online streaming November 10, 2015.
“Most people, if they know about reggae, they know Bob Marley and dreadlocks, but they don’t really understand where it’s all coming from,” said Stafford. “When you start to examine where it’s coming from, you find that it’s a very deep very rich history that goes back to Africa, that goes back to the Bible, and it really has its roots in the teachings of His Majesty, Haile Selassie, which are the teachings of love and unity for all people.”
Speaking of love and unity another blessing came out of filming “Holding on to Jah.” In Portmore, Harrison met his wife Okeiliah, a black Jamaican lawyer from Kingston. They now have two children and one on one the way. He joked about how his mother told him to marry a “nice Jewish girl” when he was young, to which he said “I think I will marry a black woman”. I really took to her spirit and her beautiful, big smile,” said Stafford. “It was a lovely thing from the beginning. She really helped me out; she would be there with me in Kingston looking at the film and giving me suggestions, and from there, the relationship grew.”
When asked about his goal for “One Dance,” Harrison said that he just wants to reach the people and spread his message worldwide.
“So many times, you put energy into an album, and through lack of promotion, timing, etc. it doesn’t get heard by people,” said Stafford. “I hope that this album can be heard and can inspire people. Through my music, I want people to have more hope in their lives and maybe view the world differently. American, Jamaican or Jewish, we are all one people. As Selassie said, our allegiance is not to our nations and countries, but to the whole of humanity.”
And yes, after his promotional tour for his solo projects Stafford will again tour as Groundation at the end of this year.