Filling up the soul

Flourishing a full quarter-century in the music business would be an impressive feat for any act with spiritual substance; what’s amazing about Sweet Honey in the Rock, though, is that these women have survived while purging their souls in a barely recognized genre.

“I believe our fans have a secret will for the group to continue,” reveals Carol Maillard, one of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s two original members.

Long regarded as the country’s premier all-woman a capella ensemble, the Washington, D.C.-based singers have been delivering their message for so long they’ve gotten used to accommodating an inevitable shift of personalities within the group.

“We managed to create a structure that would allow women to go in and out of the group. If anyone had to leave, they could do so; you could replace her … because life goes on,” explains Maillard. Founder Bernice Johnson Reagon conceived the group as a way to uphold African-American cultural singing traditions, while shouldering a political agenda; 25 years and 22 singers later (Reagon is the other remaining original), the six-member group continues to sing out, calling for the death of greed and inhumanity — blending old-time spirituals, traditional hymns, jazz, pop and blues.

“We [draw] a wide array of people to our shows, but what holds the thread for Sweet Honey in the Rock fans is that they are all caring people,” Maillard posits. “They’re people who care about many issues … people who have concern for humanity, people who care how other people are treated and regarded, and like to hear the things that are on their minds addressed in songs.”

Sweet Honey’s latest release, Twenty-Five (Rykodisc, 1998), finds the group coating a standard mix of covers and originals with breath-halting pomp and splendor. Absorbing their hair-raising rendition of the gospel oldie “I Was Standing by the Bedside of a Neighbor,” or Maillard’s sweetly wrung-out “Motherless Child,” or the chilling, prayerful Reagon contribution “Anybody Here?”, it’s hard to imagine that the group’s revolving-door policy could have produced this kind of almost impenetrable harmony.

“Everybody’s music expresses their personality,” explains Maillard. “What you get is our individual flavor. [The differences] add to who we are.”

The group is featured briefly in the movie Beloved — the current Oprah Winfrey extravaganza based on Toni Morrison’s Pulitizer-Prize-winning novel of the same name — and won a Grammy in the Best Traditional Folk Recording category for their version of Leadbelly’s “Gray Goose.”

Sweet Honey in the Rock members boast a weighty list of individual accomplishments, as well. Looking only at the group’s two senior members, Maillard has appeared to critical acclaim in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway productions, while Reagon — a distinguished professor of history at D.C.’s American University and curator emeritus at the Smithsonian — has received a MacArthur Fellowship and was the 1995 Charles Frankel Prize winner for outstanding contributions to public understanding of the humanities, among other awards.

Still, the potent combination of impressive resumes and raw talent does not necessarily mean it’s easy for Sweet Honey in the Rock to get its message to the public.

“[The music business is] about money, and [an all-female a capella group] is not what people with money are pushing,” says Maillard. “It takes a full-time publicist to make sure the music is always in the public’s mind.”

But once the music is in people’s minds, it apparently stays there, as Sweet Honey’s longevity attests. In spreading their political ideas through song, group members actually have an advantage over more ephemeral forms of storytelling, Maillard says.

“Television is so random,” she muses. “The ideas jump around quite a bit, whereas music has more of an element of choice. You can listen over and over to what appeals to you.”

The group’s name comes from an ancient fable that tells of a land so rich that even cracking a rock open would yield honey, and Maillard’s expectations for a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert are no less abundant.

“This music opens you up and fills you with something good for your soul,” she rhapsodizes. “I would like someone coming out of a show to feel, on all levels — spiritually, intellectually and emotionally — that there might have been some kind of opening … and we filled it.”

@boxhead:Hook up with Sweet Honey

Sweet Honey in the Rock brings their strong, sweet sound to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Sunday, Nov. 1, as part of UNCA’s 1998-’99 Performing Arts Series. A sign-language interpreter will be present at the concert. The concert starts at 7:30 p.m., and reserved seat tickets are $20, $18 and $15. This program is co-sponsored by the UNCA African-American Student Association. Call 259-5544 or 251-5505 for tickets and more info.

Sweet Honey member Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell will sign her new CD- accompanied book, No Mirrors in My Nana’s House, on Monday, Nov. 2, at Malaprop’s.

Later on Nov. 2, Barnwell will lead a workshop called “The Power of Song” at the YMI Cultural Center, from 6-9 p.m. This workshop is designed to facilitate the development of the African-American vocal tradition through the vehicle of music.

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