Sweet Honey in the Rock, testifying at Alverno
Sweet Honey in the Rock brought rock-solid vocals and harmonies, sweetened (sometimes dripping) with old-time religion and calls for social justice, to the Alverno Presents series at the college’s Pitman Theater Saturday night. Both their style and content draw on traditions that go back to slavery and live on in black churches, in gospel songs embedded with messages of protest and hope. Their message and music also resonate with the Black Power movement and the folk protest songs of the 1960s.
The cast of the a cappella group, founded in 1973, has changed over the years. Two charter members remain in the group, which comprises Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson and American Sign Language Interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton. Their backgrounds include theater, opera, jazz, and instrumental performance. Each of the versatile singers is able to blend her voice in traditional vocal harmony, belt out wailing solos, or imitate the sounds of strings, winds, percussion and brass.
The first artist on the stage was silent throughout the evening, but spoke eloquently with her entire body, interpreting the words in sign language. The performance began with an African song, traditionally sung to welcome a child. Sweet Honey sang it in the context of creating a better world with an unspoiled planet, healthcare for all, “and mostly, love.” The song also introduced Ysaye, the bedrock of the group, whose plucked-base sound anchors the sometimes brassy, sometimes Hammond organ-like chords that pulsate under solos and duets in the higher voices. Percussion, from clapping hands to simple hand-held instruments, is the only accompaniment.
Saturday’s concert often felt like Sunday Meeting. Gospel selections filled about half the program. Songs calling for social justice and spoken sermons took up the rest. The women praised the Wisconsin protests and the Wall Street occupation and asked the audience to “get involved.” Nitanju begged the men in the audience to take action or speak out if they ever see or hear of abuse, and told the story of how she helped a friend escape. This introduced Run, which linked the words “excuses” and “abuses” and urgeed the victim to flee an abusive relationship, which was likened to slavery.
Sweet Honey often invited the audience to participate, most successfully in an African gathering chant that filled the theater with sound. But during an extended solo by Aisha, vamping on Bob Marley’s Redemption Song became irritating when it devolved into a scat tutorial with chirps and piercing flute tones echoed muddily from the hall.
Sweet Honey’s music often seeks to educate (or proselytize) the next generation. Ysaye spoke to the young people in the audience about inspiration, telling them that “if you hear names you are not familiar with: Google them!” The song, Inspire, listed inspirational African Americans from Harriet Tubman through Obama; who stood, sat, marched, and wrote. Ysaye clearly articulated each name.
The performance ended with a short encore, summarizing the social justice sermon by connecting personal virtue to world peace through a chain linking rightness and rights. The deep plucked-bass sound that permeated each song continued to resonate into the night.