The uplifting Sweet Honey in the Rock

Sweet inspirations
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  November 11, 2010

Music_Sweet-Honey_main
‘I HOPE PEOPLE WILL HEAR THEIR OWN HEARTBEAT IN OUR MUSIC,’ says Maillard (third from left).

FirstWorks has a rousing finale to wrap up the 2010 Festival: a performance by the internationally-renowned a cappella group Sweet Honey In the Rock at the VMA Arts & Cultural Center on Saturday, November 13 at 7:30 pm (first-works.org). With their spine-tingling blend of gospel, blues, jazz, hip-hop, African chants, rap, and reggae, this six-member ensemble features Shirley Childress Saxton, Ysaye Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard, and Louise Robinson.

Robinson and Maillard were founding members, along with Bernice Johnson Reagan and Mie, in 1973, when they made appearances at music festivals in Washington, DC. Both left the group within its first five years; Maillard came back in 1992. and Robinson in 2004. They collaborated with other members of Sweet Honey in 2006 on a commissioned piece, called "Indaba," meaning "community," selections of which they will present, in an East Coast premiere, with the Junior Providence Singers. The sextet will also do a three-day residency with public school students from across the state, as well as students from Brown, RISD, and the Rhode Island School for the Deaf.

Maillard and Robinson also wrote songs for Sweet Honey's 2008 Grammy-nominated album for young people, Experience . . . 101. Maillard's songs are about keeping your balance ("4 U 2 Know as U Grow"), believing in yourself ("All I Have to Do"), and being confident of your own talents ("Trust").

In a phone conversation from her New York home, Maillard speaks about the latter song: "I heard a talk from my meditation teacher, and the focus was to trust in all your blessings, that they will flow like sweet honey from heaven. That phrase and a bit of melody stayed in my brain, and all of a sudden the song was there."

In addition to reaching out to young people on several specific albums, Sweet Honey has always written songs about social and economic justice, human rights around the world, peace among nations, and peace in our own land. Opening up their website, you hear a song they composed last spring about Arizona's new immigration law: "Are We a Nation?"

"You know, in America, this is the hot-button issue right now," Maillard notes, "so we've been hoping that using music and our artistry will keep people aware of the issue. We need the whole nation to be informed and involved in immigration reform. We are basically a country that has always received people from all over the world, regardless of religion, race, or economic status. This law isolates a whole group of people."

Musically, the group's five voices weave over and under one another, as they take turns on high and low parts — "we all switch around; that keeps your voice facile and helps you hear things in a different way" — and Maillard comments that some of her favorite on-stage moments have happened when one of the singers "gets fired up and starts doing different things — something special happens to the song, and the group goes with it. It's exciting and takes you to another level of performing it."

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