Groundation - Hebron Gate

10 February, 2012

By Red


Like many Western European, urban-dwelling, middle-class white boys, my first foray into reggae music came from Bob Marley. My older brother bought me his 'Legends' CD when I was 13, and I never really looked back: Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, Buju Banton, they provided the soundtrack to my teenage years, which admittedly were as far removed from the Jamaican countryside hills as Lee 'Scratch' Perry is from reality.


 In my 20s, however, I struggled to find something new and stimulating in the reggae genre. This might've been because I wasn't looking hard enough, or it might've been because reggae is quite restricted musically: up the tempo and it becomes 'ska'; make it too varied and improvised and it becomes 'jazz'; make it more aggressive and it becomes 'ragga'; strip it of its soul and it becomes 'UB40'.


Until the day I stumbled upon Groundation'sHebron Gate. It only took the intro of the first song for me to realise this was something special. A lingering, melancholic saxophone melody, a hypnotic bass line, and an emerging drum roll in the distant background provide a slow and tortuous build-up, which is then crystallised and smashed into pieces when the guitar kicks in to a familiar reggae beat. Your head will bop. You will smile. By the time Harrison Stafford's roots voice comes in, you will have seen the light. Jah Rastafari.


Groundation's greatest trick is to preserve the 'roots reggae' tradition while introducing a much more modern, free, and inspiring jazz ensemble. Their band comprises of 13 members, and of instruments as diverse as the trombone, the sax, the keyboards, the  flute, some trumpets, and obviously bass and guitars. And that's the real beauty of Hebron Gate: it is extremely accomplished musically. It assimilates jazz, fusion, dub, stout latin, roots, and some African poly-rhythmics. The songs all last over 6 minutes, and are playful, liberated, organic. They take the listener on a journey. It would work perfectly well as a purely instrumental album.


In a way, none of this is surprising. Harrison Stafford, the lead singer, was a professor of Reggae History at Sonoma State University. Saxophonist Jason Robinson was the head of the jazz program at UC San Diego. These band members are steeped in music theory and history, and it shows. The song 'Silver Tong Show'even takes us on a guided tour of the Black liberation movement, name-checking Marcus Garvey, Bantu Biko, and William Gordon (yeah, I had to Wiki some of them too). 


The lyrics are more 'fire-and-brimstone- mystical-allegories' than the usual 'love, weed and women' holy trilogy favoured by many reggae artists. In terms of overall message, Hebron Gate is supposedly a concept album about the struggle to reach 'Zion', whatever that may be, although my favourite track 'Pictures on your wall'is about a run of the mill break-up, as far as I can tell.


I'm not usually a massive fan of either concept albums or of Rasta mystical allegories. For a start, I find it extremely difficult to take this religion seriously. Don't get me wrong, I respect everyone's right to believe in whatever they want. But Rastafarianism basically  came about because of a bunch of stoners in the Jamaican hills misread the Bible, conflated their misreadings with local political developments (the black repatriation movement), and then adapted it all to traditional Jamaican customs (smoking weed) in a conceptual mish-mash any habitual pothead would sympathise with.


They could've called it a day then. Instead, in the late 1920s, on the other side of the world, a young prince named 'Ras Tafari' was crowned king of Ethopia under the name 'Hailie Sellassie I' (that's an 'I' as 'Charles I', by the way, not an 'I' as in 'I've got the munchies'). For some unfathomable reason, the stoners in the Jamaican hills took him for their messiah. This surprised Hailie Sallassie as much as anyone else. As his mother might've said, 'He's not the Messiah, he's just a very naughty boy who's about to be crowned King'. But she didn't. And thus Rastafarianism was born.


All this is a long-winded way of saying that I'm not usually impressed by the spiritual redemption offered by traditional rasta chants, but Hebron Gate's lyrics, to give credit where it's due, bristle with passion, determination, fire and righteous anger. Sentiments which provide a welcome boost when I'm fighting the tide at rush hour in the London Underground.




Primary Genre: Reggae

Subgenre: Jazz Fusion

Release Date21 January 2003

LabelYoung Tree Record

InfluencesBurning Spear, Black Uhuru, Yellowman

Like This And You'll Probably Also LikeRockamovya, Ernest Ranglin', Bunju Banton,  Horace Andy

Album HighlightsPictures on the Wall, Silver Tongue Show, Jah Jah Know










"OK this is a tough one for me - on the one hand, I'm not massively into reggae (though what I do like I tend to LOVE), and, more to the point here, I'm not a huge fan of Stafford's singing. Not sure why, it just doesn't do it for me. On the other hand however, I did find myself getting absorbed at times in Hebron Gate's vibes and the quality of the musicianshhip at play. So for me this is a 6.5/10 but with the * of me revisiting this further down the road. Jah bless"






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Half Iroquois Chief, half Shaolin monk, a quarter Jewish, and a bit of French. Currently auditioning to play a cat in the musical: 'Punk Rock - Anarchy in the EU?
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