by Mark Harris

26 May 2005

Do you like your reggae planted firmly in its roots? Can you accept that real reggae can come from California and not the Caribbean? Then you just might be ready for Groundation.

How to Replace That Worn-Out Copy of Bob Marley’s Legend in Your CD Changer (For a While)

Since Bob Marley’s death in 1981, reggae’s most enduring contribution to popular culture has been the theme song to COPS. Maybe the “butterfly”.

But now, reggae is back. Or haven’t you heard? Listening to the likes of Sean Paul, Wayne Wonder, and Elephant Man, though, you might be confused: “This sounds nothing like ‘Jamming’!” Yes, dancehall is technically a subset of reggae, but in truth it’s more of a cousin, in the way that hip-hop is related to R&B or George Clooney is to Miguel Ferrer.

The pounding, computerized sound of dancehall could be no further from the folksy lilt of Bob Marley, but could its recent swell in popularity spell a resurgence of the rootsy, Marley-esque sound? Certainly, 311’s “Amber”, No Doubt’s “Underneath It All”, and Sean Paul’s remake of the Alton Ellis classic “I’m Still in Love With You” lean in that direction.

If this is the case, prepare now. Grab your red, gold, and green wristbands, grow your dreadlocks, and discover Groundation. This scorching nine-piece band took shape in 1996 when founding members Ryan Newman, Marcus Urani, and Harrison Stafford met studying jazz at Sonoma State University. Yes, they’re American. Yes, they still rock.

As the name suggests—a “groundation” is a Rastafarian spiritual gathering—this bunch of California kids has a deep reverence for reggae’s roots. In fact, lead singer Stafford recently taught the first (and perhaps the only) American college course on the history of reggae music, earning him the nickname “Professor”. The group itself has earned a healthy respect within the largely Jamaican reggae community, as evidenced by guest appearances on its albums by renowned reggae figures Don Carlos, Ras Michael, the Congos, and Albert “Apple Gabriel” Craig.

Even if those names mean nothing to you, you may still be a prime candidate for Groundation fandom. Reggae newbies whose point of reference begins and ends with Bob Marley should find the group’s sound readily accessible. The laid-back vibe is hypnotic; the lush, layered music freely incorporates the lads’ jazz education; and lead singer Stafford’s raspy, emotive vocals are downright Marley-rific.

There’s also the classic rock feel of Groundation’s songs. They feature meandering melodies and extended instrumental stretches in epic (at least as far as reggae goes) six- or seven-minute tracks. And, while they operate within the framework of familiar Rastafarian socio-religious ideologies, Stafford’s lyrics are much denser than the typical reggae fare. He paints lurid portraits of mankind’s struggles with metaphoric folktales of oppression and resistance. (Or is he just high? I prefer the former.) The group’s 1999 debut Young Tree was even touted as the first reggae concept album, a sort of reggae rock opera telling the tale of the Tree of Life.

And, like it or not, the fact that the group’s members are white can only help the group’s adoption by the mainstream. But if skin color alone counted, Snow wouldn’t be busing tables at Applebee’s, would he? Lucky for us, Groundation’s members have the skill to justify any success they may have in the future.

But veteran reggae listeners shouldn’t worry that this is another “reggae lite” act like UB40 or Big Mountain. Even the most hardened reggae purists will find much to relish in Groundation’s work. Unlike many of today’s so-called ska and dub acts, whose music is more a bastardized version of the original Jamaican styles (incorporating punk rock and electonica, respectively), the band remains faithful to its roots in, well, roots. Their brand of roots reggae is as authentic as any coming out of the US today, and frankly, it’s about as genuinely rootsy as anything emerging from dancehall-crazed Jamaica as well.

So far, Groundation has released four self-produced albums on its own Young Tree label. Each is an amazingly consistent testament to the enduring power of reggae, a genre that was presumed by many to have died with the passing of Bob Marley. Close your eyes and listen to any of the group’s albums; it’s not hard to imagine that this is the type of music he’d be performing if he were still alive today.

Supported by a far-flung tour schedule that includes its own annual Marley tribute show, Groundation continues to win fans worldwide—albeit still a very underground world, like some sort of post-apocalyptic future where everyone has been driven beneath the Earth’s surface by the greenhouse effect, only to have their spirits enlivened by the musical beatitude instilled by Groundation, allowing people to break through the Earth’s mantle and overthrow the toothy, mutant squirrels who will no doubt come to dominate in Man’s absence. Act now before it’s too late.

[band website]

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