(left to right): Ysaye Barnwell
Aisha Kahlil, Louise Robinson,
Carol Maillard, Nitanju Bolade Casel,
Shirley Childress Saxton
Photo: Sharon Farmer
There is great power in the melding of voices, raising them to illuminate the human spirit and the broad palette of emotions we carry within. Sweet Honey In The Rock, a group of African-American women have been doing just that for more than 30 years.
Carol Maillard, by training a singer and actress, was one of the original founders of the group. Although she left for other projects, she returned and has been with Sweet Honey since 1992.
Maillard cites this as the genesis of Sweet Honey.
“It ended up being an ensemble of the best singers, sometimes all men, sometimes all women, sometimes a mix. We took a break that summer, and when we resumed in the fall, it turned out that there were four of us, all women, who had been to every rehearsal. We just sort of became Sweet Honey In The Rock.”
“One of the best things that happened to us was the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life. Bernice, who was working as a singer/cultural educator at the festival, brought us into her gig. We made our debut in May of 1974, as part of the ‘African Diaspora.’ It was wonderful. For two weeks, we sat on a porch that had been constructed, just sang; 30 minutes in the morning and then twenty minutes on the stage at night. Whoever was available sang, there were no mikes, we’d sing and talk to the audience. We did it in 1975 and again in 1976.”
“After that, we just started getting a lot of exposure. We played at folk festivals, rallies and fundraisers, at colleges and church functions.”
The “work” of Sweet Honey” has become clearer over the years.
While the group, with dozens of albums/CD’s to their credit, are accomplished a capella singers in the studio, their live shows provide audiences with a genuine, soul-stirring experience. With their astonishing repertoire, ranging from traditional African chants to gospel shouts and spirituals, folk songs to original songs about growing up and learning and loving, Sweet Honey has honed their Grammy-winning style into a veritable musical force of nature. They present audiences with a delightful paradox; they manage to exude an utterly guileless and infectious exuberance and at the same time retain a nearly regal dignity.
Maillard is amused at this description.
“I don’t have a clue about how it happens; we don’t study or talk about it, we just do it. With the people we have in the group, we have the ability and energy to reach the audience. We sing about some pretty serious issues. I guess we ask questions, like where is the will to go forward towards joy, and how are you going to raise yourself up? You have to exude energy if you are going to make a change.”
“We learn something, every time we get together and sing. These are very creative people with a lot of influences that really run the gamut. Sometimes we hear different things within a song, in voicing or meanings, rhythms. Sometimes these don’t become part of what we are doing until a year or two down the line. I might want to expand an idea, add words, grow the song. That way even traditional songs stay fresh, and we want to keep that solid. But we can hear things in another way, and have the freedom to try that.”
For Maillard and her companions in Sweet Honey, she hopes that audiences will take away a clear sense of the group.
“We just want people to know the group is constantly evolving. We are pleased when you people come to see us, and we like going to sing in new places. We want to do everything we can to Sweet Honey out there to learn from, enjoy and share.”
Sweet Honey In The Rock
Earthbeat R2 76422
This soundtrack, taken from a PBS American Masters presentation, captures the live sound of Sweet Honey to perfection. Not only do the shifting and swirling arrangements spotlight individual voices, they also embrace an eclectic range of harmonies and rhythms.
To fans of the a capella group, this should come as no surprise. Their live performances are legendary for their sheer energy and their eclectic repertoire, and this album is a veritable buffet for the fan and the uninitiated. Several of the songs feature spoken introductions, which help place the songs into a context- historical or otherwise relating to the growth of Sweet Honey. The first song they performed live, ‘Joan Little,’ is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. Likewise, ‘The Ballad of Harry T. Moore’, adapted from a poem by Langston Hughes to commemorate the death of an organizer for the NAACP in Florida in the early fifties, in this heart-felt rendition, is a haunting reminder of the road we still have to travel.
The other highlight of the CD is an ethereal version of another of their reportorial classics, ‘In The Upper Room With Jesus,’ worth the price of admission by itself.
Thirty years on, Sweet Honey remain luminous, inspiring, and most decidedly on key. A terrific introduction to one of the truly important musical groups in American culture.