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VOL 3. NO. 37 Monday, October 1 - Sunday, October 7, 2001
Sweet Honey in the Rock: A Homecoming Celebration
By Avonie BROWN

The members of Sweet Honey In the Rock are: (Front) Bernice Johnson Reagon, Ysaye Maria Barnwell and Shirley Childress Saxton; (Rear) Nitanju Bolade Casel, Carol Maillard and Aisha Kahlil.

After more than a quarter of a century Sweet Honey in the Rock continues to celebrate the rich historical and musical legacy of Africans in America. They have delved into the vaults of our spiritual, political and cultural lives to unearth and expose treasures that will take you on a musical journey into the soul.

For 28 years they have given voice to the African-American experience with an extensive repertoire of music that is not only boldly original and artistically adventurous, it is steeped in social consciousness. No wonder the group consistently sells out its area performances year after year, reaffirming their place as one of the world's premiere a cappella groups.

Their music is deeply personal, with an honesty and clarity that is unprecedented.

Sweet Honey in the Rock debuted in November 1973 at Howard University. Then, Bernice Reagon, vocal director of the (Washington) D.C. Repertory Theater, was urged by members to form a singing group. In creating the group, Reagon brought to them her musical training rooted in the spirituals and hymns learned in the rural southern church pastored by her father, and her political commitment informed by her civil rights activism with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Reagon explained in one magazine that the name of the group came from a song she learned as a child. When she asked her father about its meaning he explained that the phrase came from "a parable that referred to a land where, when the rocks were cracked, honey would flow from them." In exploring the parable's meaning Reagon saw its connection to the experiences of African-American women. "So too, sometimes, we, Black women, have had to have the standing power of rocks and of mountains--cold and hard, strong and stationary. That quality has often obscured the fact that inside the strength, partnering the sturdiness, we are as honey. If our world is warm, honey flows and so do we. If it is cold, stiff, and stays put--so do we," Reagon has said.

Since the groups formation 22 women have shared the Sweet Honey experience, connecting us to all that we are and dare to be. Dr Ysaye Barnwell, whose earth-warming bass line resonates throughout each performance, has been a member since 1979. In a conversation she explained that with each woman that has been a part of this musical collective, "the messages has not necessarily changed, but has expanded as we have become clearer about the issues we believe in." It is their political focus and their commitment to voicing issues of racism, sexism, poverty and homophobia, that has consistent distinguished their music and their performances.

Each performance is a spontaneously woven spiritual journey that demands the active participation of the audience. They challenge and draw us into an emotional and passionate call and response interplay. "We realize it is an emotional experience for our audiences because they not only tell us, we can feel it," said Barnwell. "And in each performance we hear and respond to each piece of magic," she adds.

The magic of the experience is sustained because with each performance the program of songs is designed by a different member; each taking turn to choreograph the musical dialogue and to tell her story. This daring improvisational approach is testimony to the strength of the ensemble and their extensive and well-rehearsed repertoire.

And the dialogue does get intense. Barnwell explains, "The things we sing about are very powerful and we feel very strongly about them. We don't live up to other people's expectations, we do exactly what we want to do." It is this political integrity that has garnered thousands of grassroots fans worldwide; fans that include grandmothers, mothers and daughters; the old and the young; differing ethnic and racial mixes across the political spectrum. "We speak to the entire community and each person leaves having identified with something or feels that their voice was represented on stage," said Barnwell.

In the process Sweet Honey defies discrete musical categorizations. It is simultaneously gospel, blues, jazz, R & B, folk and rap infused with other musical influences of the African Diaspora. It is never neat, compromising or settled but always poetic, politically conscious and artistically adventurous. "We have to be responsible for how we represent the culture and how we move it alone," said Barnwell.

In a era of prefabricated, overly dubbed, musical formulas, Sweet Honey has consistently done what most pop divas fear -- they explore the natural contours and beauty of the human voice. The clarity of the message and the purity of the harmony will be evident in their upcoming concert at the Warner Theatre on October 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15-$45 and may be purchased at any Ticketmaster outlets. Pick up you tickets early because the show WILL sell-out. And if you miss this performance check out any of their 15 CDs and be prepared to be consumed by a powerful musical celebration of black life.

To comment on this or any other article by Avonie Brown email editor@metroconnection.info.

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