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Still rooted in reggae, Groundation band reinvents itself

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uick lesson in semantics, leading directly to a chance to hear some great live music next week: The definition of the word groundation is the state of being grounded, but it has other connotations and a long history.

Groundation Day, celebrated on April 21, marks the date in 1966 that Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia — regarded by believers in the Rastafarian religion as divine — visited Jamaica for the first and only time.

The most famous Rastafarian, of course, was Jamaican musician Bob Marley, who pioneered the reggae style from the 1960s until his death in 1981.

For reggae fans in Sonoma County, and around the world, Groundation also has another meaning. It’s the name of a band formed in 1998 by a handful of Sonoma State University graduates and led by singer and guitarist Harrison Stafford.

In a break from globetrotting and performing, Stafford will bring Groundation back to Sonoma County, where his career began, for a performance Dec. 20 at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma.

Groundnation emerged last year from a three-year hiatus with a new album titled “Next Generation” and an all-new lineup of nine musicians backing Stafford. It’s a fresh start for a group which has survived numerous, if less drastic, lineup changes over its long career, which includes eight previous studio ablums.

“To be honest, we had a parting of the ways between band members,” Stafford said. “There was no way to go forward. It was time to start fresh. One of the reasons for the breakup was that our drummer needed to retire from touring and return to his family.”

Now living in Tracy, Stafford, 42, has toured with the new Groundation band to Brazil, Puerto Rico, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland, as well as France, where “Next Generation” won the 2018 award for Best Reggae Roots Album.

“This is a new band, but it’s still Groundation,” Stafford said. “We’ve had many different musicians over the years and many changes, but this is the sound we’ve been developing

from the beginning.

“The whole foundation of Groundation has been lyrics that focus on political and social frustration,” he added. “You’re not going to hear three-minute pop songs. We couldn’t just have new musicians. We had to make a statement.”

In the tradition of Marley and other reggae legends, Groundation’s songs speak out for peace, justice and freedom. For the instrumental sound of the band, Stafford — who majored in jazz and taught jazz history at Sonoma State, and whose father and grandfather were both jazz musicians — aims to blend the classic reggae of Bob Marley and his followers with the power and gloss of American stars from the ’20s and ’30s like Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

“I’ve always loved the idea of a reggae big band,” Stafford said. “The music is really thick, because you have the horn section there.”

Groundation has had Jamaican-born members throughout its history but remained rooted here, Stafford said.

“This is still a California band. But we’ve been out getting new people out to see us in Europe, South America and Australia,” he said.

Now that the band is back in California, the next project is a live album to come out next year.

“I am very excited about this group,” Stafford said.

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