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April 21, 2006

Sweet Honey moves more into the rockin'

Ann Arbor News (MI):

Forging a new path is never easy, but it can be especially challenging for a singing group that's 30-some years into its musical journey. Aisha Kahlil, of the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, is effusive as she discusses the "new directions'' the group has pursued in the past two years, after Sweet Honey expanded following the retirement of group founder and leader Bernice Johnson Reagon in 2004.

"A lot of what we're doing since Bernice retired is so different,'' said Kahlil, who joins her spiritual sisters in Sweet Honey on Saturday for a performance at Hill Auditorium, presented by the University Musical Society. "I wouldn't say we set out to 'replace' Bernice, but after she left, we set out to restructure the group a bit. We now have six voices instead of five, and they're very different voices.

"The new members (Louise Robinson and Arnae) are different women, with different writing and singing styles, and the songs they brought are very different than a lot of what we had been doing before,'' said Kahlil during a recent phone interview. "The energy is more balanced now, in terms of communicating with the audience. In the past, Bernice was more of the lead spokesperson on stage, but now we're all doing a lot more of that. "I think it's much more relaxed now, and people seem to be loving the energy of the new group - we're doing more R&B, more hip-hop. I know I'm enjoying it.''

Not that R&B and hip-hop are totally new elements for Sweet Honey - they began using those styles in small doses several years ago, adding to their mix of traditional gospel hymns, African chants, blues, Negro spirituals, reggae, old-time lullabies, jazzy vocal improvisation and African percussion instruments. "But overall, I think we have a more contemporary sound now,'' said Kahlil. "And we're also incorporating more on-stage movement and choreography.''

The more contemporary vocal styles are also finding their way into the group's current recording sessions for its next CD, which will be its first release with the new members. "We're in the studio now, and we just have so much material, it's been sort of a challenge deciding what to include in the final track listing'' said Kahlil. "I think people will be surprised at the overall sound and the way the songs are coming through. Our sound engineer agreed that it sounds much more contemporary.''

Whether a more modern sound will go over with longtime fans who were most drawn to the group's command of traditional styles like gospel, African, blues, jazz and reggae remains to be seen. "But I think our music has always evolved,'' stressed Kahlil. "Over the years, we've added more of the R&B and African music, and a lot more improvisation, both separately and in the context of the songs. I think our sound was always eclectic, it's just that, lately, it's become much more so. The music is constantly evolving and transforming itself.''

Last year, Sweet Honey released "Raise Your Voice,'' a live recording of its 2003 tour - Reagon's "farewell tour.'' Those shows were also commemorated in a documentary of the same name, which debuted last June as part of the PBS "American Masters'' series. Telecasts of that documentary led to a significant spike in the group's public profile. "We definitely got more exposure from that,'' said Kahlil. "We could see that in the increases in our record sales and the number of people who visited our Web site.''

One unique aspect of the Sweet Honey experience is the group's political and social commentary, both in their songs and in their on-stage remarks. Because Sweet Honey consists of strong black women, the group was heartily embraced by the women's movement during the '70s and '80s. "Back then, the audiences for our shows were mostly women,'' recalled Kahlil. "But our audience has evolved since then, just like our music has evolved. "Our audiences are no longer predominantly women.''

Although Sweet Honey is sometimes perceived as a "gospel group,'' Kahlil points out that the group's message is more inclusive and expansive than that tag would imply. "Ours isn't the basic Christian message,'' said Kahlil. "We don't proselytize. The women in the group don't claim to be Christian, or any other specific religion. We advocate a spirituality that embraces all religions.''

Posted by acapnews at April 21, 2006 12:42 AM