January 15, 2009

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When honey meets granite
Sweet Honey in the Rock offers music from the heart
By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

The women of Sweet Honey in the Rock have spent their careers exploring political, social and environmental issues, themes of life and death, love and loss, celebration and struggle through their music. The group blends jazz, gospel, hip-hop and traditional African music, relying primarily on the pure vocals of the members, who are accompanied only by hand and body percussion instruments.

Sweet Honey in the Rock will make several appearances in New Hampshire in January — at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, at Darmouth College in Hanover and at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

The ensemble was formed in 1973 by Bernice Johnson Reagon at the D.C. Black Repertory Theater, and over the years 20 African-American women have lent their voices to the a capella group, with the current lineup including Ysaye Barnwell, Louise Robinson, Carol Maillard, Nitanju Casel, Shirley Childress Saxton and Aisha Kahlil, who joined the group in 1981. Kahlil has seen Sweet Honey evolve from a small quartet to a Grammy-winning, six-woman powerhouse that recently collaborated with the Alvin Ailey dance company.

“Well, it’s been quite a journey actually,” Kahlil said. “I remember when I first joined Sweet Honey, the choreography was just all sitting down through the whole performance. I couldn’t stand it. I was literally jumping and dancing in my seat. Sometimes we do actually have choreography as well as some different types of things interspersed and intertwined into our shows.”

Sweet Honey is known for weaving social and political issues into their music, their live performances using elements of theater and storytelling to enhance the experience for the audience.

“I think the music tells a story, to bring others along,” Kahlil said. “To take the audience on a journey, to think about issues that are a part of life. It’s fun — we’ve come a long way and the concerts grow more and more fun.”

The group has collaborated with educators, filmmakers and dance troupes, but for Sweet Honey, music is where their passion resides.

“The music is the heart of it,” Kahlil said. “Most of the music we do is written by members of the group, and we rely on traditional music as well, and we’ll never give up those roots. Not only African traditional music, but also the music that has been developed by African-Americans — coming up through slavery, jail house blues, gospel, jazz, rap, hip-hop. All those different influences are represented in our music.”


How sweet it is. Courtesy photo.

Sweet Honey in the Rock
• Friday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m., Spaulding Auditorium at Dartmouth College, 6041 Wilson Hall, Hanover. $40, 646-2422.
• Saturday, Jan. 24, at 8 p.m., Colonial Theatre, 95 Main St., Keene. $32 to $46, 352-2033.
• Monday, Jan. 26, at 7 p.m., Johnson Theatre at UNH, 30 Academic Way, Durham. $20 to $50. 862-2290.