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November 10, 2005

Art, politics quicken flow of Sweet Honey

New York Newsday

When the singers of Sweet Honey in the Rock broke out dancing during last year's Carnegie Hall concert, the audience went up in one approving whoop. Choreography that staged - that intentional - was a new touch for the group, founded in 1973 and propelled in large measure by the near iconic force of its leader and founder, Bernice Johnson Reagon. In late 2003, Reagon, the civil rights activist, ethno-musicologist, Smithsonian Institution curator, university professor, National Public Radio producer, and so on, ended her time with the six-woman, Grammy-winning a cappella ensemble. Almost 62 years old then, she had other dreams to follow.

"Bernice gave each person a telephone call at different points from, maybe, December to January before we were to go back on tour," said Carol Maillard, who became artistic director when Reagon left. "She posed the question: 'If you want to go on, that's good. You should. But if you don't, I'll do the business of closing Sweet Honey out.'" Going on? "It was a no-brainer," Maillard said.

"If what people think Bernice created, really exists," said Ysaye Maria Barnwell, who replaced Reagon as administrative director, "if Sweet Honey really is an institution, then it certainly ought to go on."

When Sweet Honey hits Carnegie's stage Saturday night for another annual concert there, the audience will be served up even newer choreography, including a West African step, and music anchored in Sweet Honey's past but hinting at its evolving future. There will be staple field hollers, hymns, protest songs and love ballads but also riffs on Latin rhythms, rap and jazz, genres that have lately infused Sweet Honey's work. As another sign of what's ahead for the group, post-Reagon, Sweet Honey plans to collaborate with neo-soul singer Jill Scott. And for last month's sold-out Marian Anderson Gala Award in Philadelphia, honoring actor-activists Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis (who died earlier this year), Sweet Honey teamed up with protest poet and spoken-word artist Sonia Sanchez. The group aims to do more of that sort of thing, Maillard said, to expand Sweet Honey's audience and help the group stretch artistically.

Twenty-two women have cycled through Sweet Honey over its more than 30 years, each having a say in some aspect of its artistry. "How we make decisions about what to take on stage, that has always been a very collective process for us," said Barnwell, also president of Sweet Honey's board of directors. "There's a new energy now, but people have always come in bringing their own energy."

New York City-bred Barnwell, who, like most of the group, lives in Washington, D.C., joined the group in 1979. Harlemite Maillard, one of the original singers, returned full-time to Sweet Honey 13 years ago after taking several years off from it. The other four singers, Louise Robinson, Aisha Kahlil, Arnať and Nitanju Bolade Casel, have tenures ranging from 24 to fewer than two years. Shirley Childress Saxton, who translates the singing into American Sign Language, came aboard in 1980.

On some level, the postReagon transition has demanded that the women shore up the group's fan base. The same year that Reagon left, Virginia Giordani, the group's longtime marketing guru, also stepped aside. Carnegie Hall had no real skills in reaching the kinds of mixed audiences - young, old, black, white, surviving off food stamps or with loads of money in the bank - Sweet Honey has tended to attract, Barnwell said. At last year's Carnegie concert, unlike most prior ones, there were some empty seats in the house.

"We're still trying to build back that audience," Barnwell said. Yet, in other cities, new ticket-buyers have shown up after being introduced to Sweet Honey and its history through "Raise Your Voice" - a PBS documentary by MacArthur Foundation genius grant winner, Stanley Nelson - which aired last June.

Sweet Honey is grounded in the black church music. Reagon came to prominence, in part, for her itinerant singing throughout the South during the civil rights movement. The group's titles, recorded on 20 CDs, include "I'm Going to Get My Baby Out of Jail," "In the Mornin' When I Rise," "Stay" and "Movin' On." If ever, the women said, an era begged for Sweet Honey's strain of politics, social commentary and romance set in song, that time is now. "We knew we could continue to do this," Maillard said. "It's never been based on one person. If we didn't have five singers, we did it with four. I've been on stage when there were just three of us. Despite whatever was going on in the world, and in our lives, we have always found a way for Sweet Honey to go on."

Posted by acapnews at November 10, 2005 12:04 AM