Turning 40 and still going strong

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark was the venue for Sweet Honey in the Rock’s stunning performance tribute to Miriam Makeba, Odetta, Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln on Saturday, March 2. The African American a cappella female ensemble performed a number of their tribute songs with three highly-talented Black male musicians (a pianist, drummer and guitar player) known as the Honey Men.

Sweet Honey’s deep, rich, rhythmic a cappella performances have captivated audiences for four decades, with a 2008 Grammy and a 2009 performance at the White House. Their reach across generations of music lovers is attributable to the vision and work of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon. In 1961, Reagon invoked the power of song after being arrested for marching in a civil rights demonstration in her hometown of Albany, Georgia. Out of her Black Repertory Theatre Workshop in Washington, D.C. Sweet Honey in the Rock was formed and named for the first song learned by the group consisting of Carol Maillard, Mie, Louise Robinson and Reagon in 1973. Since then 23 singers have performed alternately with the five-part harmony group. On stage is also American Sign Language interpreter Shirley Childress.

Sweet Honey in the Rock has worn the mantle of protest and social justice, and 40 years later they are still vibrant and steady in their homage to talented predecessors who also gave voice to the injustices in the world. Much of Sweet Honey’s music is original as each performer writes her own work and brings it to the group for inclusion in their repertoire. While each work is an individual artist’s creation, it symbolizes the stages of our progress as a people.

Speaking in a phone interview with Aisha Kahlil who joined Sweet Honey in 1981 as the fifth member, Caribbean Life learned of the group’s use of a cappella music for social impact. Ms. Kahlil remarked, “people come up to us all the time after the show saying how their lives have been impacted by our music. We try to open their minds about things they have not thought about before; get them thinking about things in a different way, and feel something they haven’t felt before. And if the music can do that, then that says a lot. It’s just a different sound, the voice is an instrument, there is a singer singing the bass line and a singer doing the guitar line instead of an instrument playing it. An upcoming performance is slated for Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on May 5. Their latest 2-CD set “A Tribute – Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center” is now available.

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