« Fresh Freshmen | Main | Toxin Paul on new E! TV show »

January 15, 2005

Sweet Honey in the Rock performs at Carnegie Hall

New York Times (NY):

It started with a letter from an earnest producer. "I am interested in expanding your audience here to those who don't go to Carnegie Hall," she wrote, "the children. I have reserved Washington Irving High School's 90-year-old auditorium for a concert on Monday, Jan. 15, 1990, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. The date itself is magnificent." Sweet Honey in the Rock, then a five-woman a cappella group, was convinced. Its first children's concert in honor of Martin Luther King's Birthday was a standing-room-filled success and the start of an annual tradition at the school, on Irving Place in Manhattan. Tomorrow, instead of singing at the high school, where for the last 15 years regulars have learned to line up, Sweet Honey will perform as part of the Family Concert series at Carnegie Hall, in the Stern Auditorium.

The shift is one of many recent transitions for Sweet Honey, a venerable vocal ensemble, founded in 1973, whose music is variously labeled gospel, folk or protest. The group's founder, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a historian, retired last year after three decades in charge. At the same time, the group parted with Virginia Giordano, the producer who initiated the children's concerts and organized the group's first major appearances, including its debut at Carnegie Hall 20 years ago. "We're thrilled to be on Carnegie's roster," Ysaye Barnwell, a member of the group and its new director, said in a telephone interview from Washington, where Sweet Honey is based. "But there's something a little bit sad in it, too, because we're no longer working with the independent woman producer who brought us there in the first place," she added, referring to Ms. Giordano. While the new location may seem upscale, tickets, at $8, are actually about half of what they cost when the group played at the school.

After Dr. Reagon's retirement, the quintet became a sextet. It added two new members: Louise Robinson, a founding member of Sweet Honey, returning from a 27-year-hiatus; and Arnaé, who at 44 is the youngest member of the group. Dr. Reagon's departure also forced Sweet Honey to question its goals. "Why are we here?" Dr. Barnwell asked. "Is this a women's group? Is it an African-American group? Do we still want to do the range of material we've done before? "Yes to all of it. We are African-American women. We have the impact of the experiences of all of our ancestors residing in us, and we want to be the voice of those experiences and people."

This sense of identity, Dr. Barnwell says, is what makes Sweet Honey resonate for people of different races and faiths. "One of the things I've learned from being in Sweet Honey," she said, "is that when you are as specific as you can be about who you are, you are the most universal." She cites a song she wrote for the group, "No Mirrors in My Nana's House." Rhythmically playful but deeply moving, it describes growing up in a home without mirrors, where the only way a child knows her own image is through her grandmother's loving gaze.

"We'd be singing it, and I'd see white people in the audience crying," she said. "And I would think, what is it they're understanding? Because in the song I'm saying, 'I never knew that my nose was too flat, I never knew that my skin was too black.' So I'm thinking, literally, what is it about this that they get? But they had comparable experiences, and somebody in their family loved them unconditionally and let them know they were special." Dr. Barnwell has watched classrooms of white children and gay men's choirs sing her song without changing any of the words. "That, to me, is an indication of what universality can be," she said.

Dr. Barnwell, 58, was a champion of tolerance long before she became serious about singing. As a child, she wanted to teach deaf children to speak, but her father, Irving Barnwell, had other plans. A violinist in string quartets during the Harlem Renaissance, he named his daughter for the renowned Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaye and taught her the instrument from age 2 until she left for college. She was talented and was even singled out by Leopold Stokowski in the New York City All-City High School Orchestra. But she stuck to her own plan and studied speech pathology. She earned a Ph.D. in craniofacial studies at the University of Pittsburgh. In Washington, where she taught at the College of Dentistry at Howard University, she started a choir for people who could not read music, at All Souls Church. In 1979, during a church service with a sermon about disabilities, she sang a solo while signing the lyrics. The performance brought Dr. Reagon up from the pews to ask Dr. Barnwell to audition for Sweet Honey in the Rock. It also led to one of the group's trademarks: performing with a sign-language interpreter.

In the concert tomorrow, the theme of inclusiveness will be part of the program. "But this is not Piggly Wiggly," Dr. Barnwell said. "We don't play down to kids." The spirit of the program comes through in the lyrics of "Ella's Song," written by Dr. Reagon to honor the civil-rights leader Ella Baker: "To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail/ And if I can but shed some light as they carry us through the gale/ The older I get the better I know that the secret of my going on/ Is when the reins are in the hands of the young, who dare to run against the storm." Dr. Reagon's words may also provide reassurance to fans fearing that without her, Sweet Honey will be like a motherless child.

Posted by acapnews at January 15, 2005 2:36 PM