Sweet Honey in the Rock celebrates 40th anniversary
with Berkeley show
By Lou Fancher
Popping the cork to celebrate 40 years of soulful a cappella singing, Sweet Honey in the Rock launches its "Forty and Fierce" tour at Cal Performances' Zellerbach Hall on Wednesday.
With a long history of performing in Berkeley, the African-American all-woman ensemble breaks free of its songbirds-in-a-semicircle performance configuration. Thanks to a spirit of adventure and a successful Indiegogo fundraising campaign, Wednesday's show features not only the group's marinated-in-melody voices but multimedia, movement and spoken-word memoirs as well.
The ensemble began carrying its "strong like a rock, but inside (there's) honey" message (a quote taken from the Bible from original member Louise Robinson, who is still in the ensemble), in 1973. Founder Bernice Johnson Reagon enlisted Carol Maillard (also still a member), Robinson and Mie in the original quartet that expressed its political and social activist beliefs through the sweet filter of blues, African, jazz, gospel and R&B music.
Twenty-three women have been a part of the group, which has fluctuated from four to six members but has never deviated from its core values of human rights, love, gratitude and courage. Since 1981, sign language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton has toppled additional barriers, with poignant, onstage interpretations allowing the hearing-impaired community to share in Sweet Honey in the Rock's conversation. Original members Maillard and Robinson are joined on the tour by Saxton, Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel and special invited guest artists.
In a phone interview, Maillard says she's thrilled the tour's first performances will be in front of the Bay Area's "beautiful riot, people singing and dancing in the aisles" audiences. Forty years, she says, "is nothing to sneeze at."
During that time, the group has earned two Grammy nominations, been part of two PBS documentaries and made an appearance at Nelson Mandela's 2013 Memorial Service in Washington, D.C.
Maillard attributes Sweet Honey's longevity to its connection with its fans.
"The power of voices coming together means there's always some place for Sweet Honey to go," she says, "with harmonies and rhythms relating to stories in (people's) lives."
Cal Performances Executive and Artistic Director Matías Tarnopolsky says the Berkeley arts presenter is honored to be the first venue for the anniversary tour.
"Sweet Honey in the Rock has a passionate following in the Bay Area due to their extraordinary musicianship and a message that consistently comes from the heart," Tarnopolsky says.
Maillard says the 40th anniversary show, directed by choreographer, dancer and director Dianne McIntyre, is a mostly scripted affair -- a first for the ensemble. The format, she says, will allow ensemble members to "do something other than sit in a semicircle and sing songs." Instead, film, video and still images will cast a wide net, capturing pivotal moments in the group's -- and America's -- history.
Storytelling will lead into song, as individual members share intimate moments. Yet there will still be room for spontaneous, spirit-led song selections to occur. Maillard calls the format exciting and says it lets longtime members like herself and Robinson "think a little brighter and see what arises."
As a passionate gun control advocate, she's likely to break into "The Women Gather," a song she wrote more than 10 years ago. "As long as a person can get a gun and shoot, we need to sing it at every concert," she says.
Although proud of Sweet Honey's timeless, voice-only messages, Maillard says integrating technology is vital for musicians hoping to engage today's audiences. "It's a digital age, we have to stay current," she says, adding that the ensemble has eagerly embraced the tour's new elements, such as special lighting effects and an occasional use of a percussionist.
Yet consistency of performance, she says, remains the bedrock upon which Sweet Honey's impressive, 40-year history has been built.
"We'll sing about immigration," she says, "we'll sing against laws allowing people to be stopped in the street if they look like they don't live there. We'll sing of respecting all peoples."
The final portion of "Forty and Fierce," Maillard says, will see the ensemble returning to its half-circle roots and shining a light forward into Sweet Honey's next decade.