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Sweet Honey in the Rock's Sacred Music Roots

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK (Singing Group): (Chanting)

ED GORDON, host:

The unique a cappella sounds of Sweet Honey In The Rock have been with us now for 32 years. The group was founded by singer and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon. It was her way of trying to preserve the musical heritage of the black American struggle for equality. The idea came about at a time when spirituals and protest songs had given way to soul music, funk and disco. Johnson-Reagon retired last year, but the group will go on. Carol Maillard was part of Sweet Honey from the very beginning.

Ms. CAROL MAILLARD (Sweet Honey In The Rock): Yes, I was. In 1973, I was a part of a theater company in Washington, DC, called the DC Black Repertory Company, and Bernice was the vocal director for the theater. And the music that we--that she was teaching us was so--I mean, absolutely amazing. And there was some very powerful and incredible singers in the group. And two of them, Lee Turry(ph) and Louise Robinson, wanted Bernice to be the vocal director for a group, that we could have our own vocal ensemble. And after, you know, really pursuing Bernice and going, `We really want the group, we really want the group,' she said, `OK, I'll work with you and we'll have a group and we'll see what happens.' And there was one rehearsal in the fall of '73 where only four people showed up, and that was Louise Robinson, myself, Myee Frederick(ph) and Bernice Johnson-Reagon. And that was the beginning and the birth of Sweet Honey In The Rock.

GORDON: Talk to me about the kind of music. I mean, it is steeped in tradition in the black church. It is steeped in the tradition of the storytelling of Africans and African-Americans. It is something that not only speaks to just plain ol' good music, but history.

Ms. MAILLARD: Yes, it does. We have a repertoire that spans from the 19th century to the present day.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) The father's name was Harry Moore of the NAACP.

Ms. MAILLARD: We talk about the things that are happening contemporarily in this world today. We may not understand what it is that they mean to us in the world that we're living in, but we're taking one step forward. We're going to keep moving forward and eventually it will all come together, and with the Lord's help and with God's grace we will all understand. We'll understand it better by and by.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) Freedom never dies, I say. Freedom never dies. No one can kill the dreams I hold, for freedom never dies.

GORDON: And to a short--or to a great degree, I should say, you shortchange yourself if you assume that this is, when seeing the group live, solely a singing act, if you will.

Ms. MAILLARD: What do you mean by that?

GORDON: Well, it seems to me that there are many more things--elements, if you will--that are placed in this interpretation.

Ms. MAILLARD: Mm-hmm.

GORDON: There is a bit of acting and theater that goes into a performance of Sweet Honey In The Rock.

Ms. MAILLARD: That's true. That's very true. My background is primarily as an actress. I think that because Sweet Honey In The Rock was started with primarily actresses--and Bernice, the three of us were actresses in the company--we brought--we wanted to bring an understanding of the words. We're not just up there just singing notes. It has to mean something. We want the audience to understand the story behind the music. So you do find that people are expressing the music in different ways--through their body language, through how they play their instruments, through how we look at one another on stage as someone gets up. And we're working more now to have staging and some lights--I would say light choreography or staging that complements the music and brings it more into a participatory experience for the audience.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing in foreign language)

GORDON: It is not easy to sustain anything for three decades. This group has sustained itself for three decades, with personnel changes...


GORDON: ...we should note.

Ms. MAILLARD: Over the years we've had 22 different women who wanted to make sure that there would always be a Sweet Honey In The Rock in the world. And it really takes that kind of dedication, I think, and sacrifice--not only from the women who come in and out, but also from our Dr. Reagon. Bernice is the mainstay. She was the person who had been there from the first rehearsal all the way up until she finished on February 1st of 2004. When she decided to retire, she called each one of us individually and had a conservation and she said, `I think I'm--you know, I'm just ready to move into something else. If you all want to keep with the group, I will certainly support that. And if you want to stop and not do the group anymore, I will do what I can. We can work together to, you know, break the business part of the group down and I guess let the public know that this would be Sweet Honey's last year.' But we said, `You know, there's no reason in the world why the women who were left--Nitanju, myself, Aisha Kahlil and Ysaye Barnwell--there was no reason in the world why we could not continue Sweet Honey and even bring it to a wider audience and expand the experience for ourselves and for people who love us.'

(Soundbite of unidentified song)


GORDON: Do you hope that the group outlasts all of you, quite frankly, and is handed down as much as the stories and the lyrics have been done generationally to different young women, and this can go on for generations?

Ms. MAILLARD: Oh, Ed, that is a beautiful idea. We do think about it, and we do want younger audiences. Maybe we'll be the board of directors or the advisory board, or we'll be, you know--and we'll have, like, Sweet Honey In The Rock II, like Alvin Ailey has Ailey II. But we do want to see the music go on and we do want to see it expand, and issues don't stop. When we're, you know, decide we're all going to retire and maybe we've passed the baton on to other people, we do want the issues to still be raised and for the sound of Sweet Honey to echo through the ages.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) Jo ...(unintelligible), she's my sister.

GORDON: That's Carol Maillard of Sweet Honey In The Rock. If you're in the New York area, you can catch the group performing tomorrow night at Carnegie Hall.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) She's your love.


GORDON: To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Consortium.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK: (Singing) I always walk by the golden rule. Doo-do-do-do. Steer clear of controversy, I say...

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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