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May 4, 2004

Billboard

Sweet Honey in the Rock still flows sweetly, even with the retirement in February of its beloved founder, Bernice Johnson Reagon. The legendary female African-American a cappella ensemble takes its name from Psalm 81's promise to a people of being fed by honey out of a rock. It was formed in 1973 by Reagon, who had served in the original SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers -- the historic vocal group that emerged during the '60s civil rights movement. Returning to the fold now after a 27-year absence is founding member Louise Robinson, who performed in such Broadway and off-Broadway productions as "Ain't Misbehavin"' during the interim.

The reconstituted group's April 17 concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark led off with the "Sweet Honey in the Rock" refrain from its 1976 self-titled debut album, followed by an updated version of longtime member Nitanju Bolade Casel's "A Tribute" (from 1993's "On the Journey"), which documents and celebrates Sweet Honey's extraordinary history -- now involving 22 members altogether -- while invoking Reagon's continuing legacy. The show's finale was "Trust," a new song written by founding member Carol Maillard. "Trust in your blessings, and all will flow like sweet honey from heaven," Maillard says, reciting a key lyric in her song.

"It's another expansion of the idea of who Sweet Honey is," she adds. That includes not only a broad repertoire of traditional and original songs, largely shaped by the sacred music of the black church, but "all the messages and ideas and stances that Sweet Honey has held and shared with the public over the last 30-odd years" -- specifically, the struggle for justice. "With the new ensemble, we're remembering the past and moving on to the future," Maillard continues. "We're creating new sounds but always being sure that fans of Sweet Honey past, present and future recognize that there is a continuum from all the formations of the group." Maillard says that "Trust" will be recorded and utilized as a promotional tool for performing arts buyers, concert promoters and radio programmers and will be sold in a limited edition at Sweet Honey concerts in the fall.

Meanwhile, longtime member Ysaye M. Barnwell reports that the group will collaborate in composing a piece for the 40th anniversary of the Washington Performing Arts Society, to be performed with the Children of Gospel and the Men and Women of Gospel in 2005. Additional collaborations with the likes of Bobby McFerrin, Andre Watts and Cuban composer Jose Maria Vitier are being discussed. Sweet Honey, which records for Earthbeat Records, appears on "Creole Bred," Vanguard's May 11 CD tribute to Creole and zydeco music. As they continue in their 30th anniversary year, they're the focus of award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, who is preparing a documentary to be aired later this year on public television.

Posted by acapnews at May 4, 2004 8:56 AM

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