The name of the group is from the Bible (“But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” –Psalm 81:16 ESV). Their music is indeed like honey to the ears, but there are deeper connections – honey in the Bible is a symbol of spiritual nurturing and consolation, not just towards an individual but towards an entire people. The music of Sweet Honey in the Rock is rooted in the call for justice and the strengthening of the oppressed, towards the Black community and the rest of the human race. Melding the blues, jazz, hymns, reggae, and spoken word, their sounds call for nothing less than spiritual healing and transformation.
Sweet Honey in the Rock is a Grammy Award-winning all-woman a capella ensemble. Their songs are extremely complex, with five women singing a five-part harmony and a sixth member translating with sign language. For nearly four decades they’ve been touring the world, sharing their passion for the arts and for social justice. And this Saturday, Sweet Honey in the Rock will be performing at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center for a one-time show, after which they’ll be flying off to Wisconsin for their next tour. That in itself is a million reasons not to miss it.
The group was started in 1973 at the D.C. Black Repertory Company. It was founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon, vocal workshop teacher for the Company, along with her students Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, and Mie). Ms. Reagon and Mie have retired from the group long since; there has been a lot of turnover throughout the last thirty years, due to members who are deceased, retired, or on leave, but thankfully there has never been a shortage of worthy women to continue to the legacy.
The current members are Robinson and Maillard, both founding members, Ysaye Barnwell, Nitanju Casel, Aisha Kahlil, and Shirley Saxton. Each member is more than just a singer. Maillard is an, actress, violinist, and poet from Philadelphia, and has performed with jazz legends Horace Silver and Betty Buckley. Robinson, a native New Yorker, is a bassist, producer, and music director. Barnwell is an educator, composer, author, and founder of the Jubilee Singers at the All-Souls Unitarian Church in D.C. Casel and Kahlil are sisters from Dakar, Senegal, who have started their own jazz ensembles and musician’s collectives on both sides of the hemisphere. Saxton is an acclaimed interpreter and activist who has founded several organizations that aspire to do the impossible – make music accessible to the deaf.
Their beauty in both looks and sound makes each performance an unsurpassable experience. They’ll take a quiet gospel classic such as “Motherless Child” and turn it into a virtuosic tour de force. Each voice is distinct, unique, vibrant, and unpredictable. Their style is characterized by close harmonies, precise attacks, rhythmic accentuation, and polyphonic bass-centered motifs from the West African tradition.
Sweet Honey from the Rock will performing on October 1 at 8pm at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center as a part of the B-word Project at California State University, Long Beach, a series of performances and activities meant to provoke awareness about the effect of censorship on art. Carpenter Performing Arts is located at 6200 Atherton Street in Long Beach. Regular tickets are $45. For more information, visit http://www.carpenterarts.org/2011-2012/sweet-honey-in-the-rock.html or call the box office at (562) 985-7000. Don’t miss it!