Sweet Honey in the Rock seemed right at home when they performed at Carnegie Hall last week, and why not? They’ve packed the place too many times to count over the years, though they’ve played smaller venues in New York of late, and since their last time at Carnegie, trimmed their roster by one with the departure of longtime member Ysaye Maria Barnwell.
But the rest of the historic 43-year-old African-American female a cappella group remains intact, with founding members Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson, veterans Nitanju Bolade Casel and Aisha Kahlil and longtime sign language interpreter Shirley Childress—though for the first time they weren’t entirely a cappella at Carnegie.
Their last album, 2013’s two-CD A Tribute: Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center, honored the songs of Nina Simone, Odetta and Miriam Makeba and was recorded with backing musicians, and their New York concerts supporting it likewise involved support players. Their just-released new album #LoveInEvolution (Appleseed Records) also has instrumental backers, among them Romeir Mendez, who played bass behind them at Carnegie. But even with the lineup and conceptual changes, “everything fell into place” with #LoveInEvolution, notes Maillard, though the recording process itself was in fact quite different.
“Usually everybody brings in their music and teaches it in rehearsals or sends tracks to the others,” says Maillard. “But this time, Nitanju brought the brainstorming process to us, and we all came up with words and phrases and ideas based on the questions she asked us–and that’s how the recording concept began. Then the rest of the words started coming and really spoke of who we are and what we were feeling.”
The strongest feeling, Maillard continues, was love–“revolutionary love, evolutionary love, love and evolution—and Nitanju put it all together in a hashtag.”
For her part, Maillard had the Internet slang acronyms IDK and LOL, and “busted up laughing,” out loud, no doubt, when they were combined into what became the album track and video.
“But we didn’t know what everything was until the rehearsal sessions,” she notes. “We put tracks down and kept layering until we had the basis for ‘IDK, But I’m LOL!’”
Sweet Honey, which first performed in 1973, had released its first commercial holiday single in 2014 with “Silent Night,” featuring a new arrnangement from Maillard. They returned to the studio the following spring, each member “laying down an idea,” she says, “adding to it, then the next person would go in. We just kept working spontaneously and organically, adding and tweaking and doing everything we needed to do to make it as pristine and honest as we could, with the idea that love is a verb—and something you act on, and not be a passive recipient. It takes a lot of guts to be nice to people all the time, but you might change someone’s attitude and day by doing something nice. Thank God Appleseed totally understood the concept immediately–love of the earth, love of each other.”
She singles out Robinson’s “Second Line Blues,” which deals with the epidemic of gun-related killings in the U.S. and the disregard for human life (the title derives from the second line funeral procession), and was the most stunning performance at Carnegie Hall, also Robinson’s “epic” “A Prayer for the World: Song 23” and the cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic hit “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).”
Musically, besides Mendez’s bass play—and djembe drummer Kristen Arant, who plays on “Sweet Sweet Honey!”–#LoveInEvolution is noteworthy, of course, for its reduced vocal lineup.
“I’ve always been a strong advocate of a [vocal] quartet,” says Maillard. “We started out as a quartet—me and Bernice Johnson Reagon, Louise Robinson, and Mie–and we’re bad as a quartet. Four people can do this work, but then Nitanju said, ‘How about a bass?’ It took only a minute to ask, ‘Why not?’”
So now “every show is different,” says Maillard.
“We had an interesting season last year,” she adds. “In the late summer of 2014 we were invited by the cultural office to go to Belize and played with kids, a Garifuna band, and did all kinds of stuff. We came back and had a letter from the ambassador to Ethiopia inviting us, and we did a similar program for black history month there and performed with a very popular local group, did a web series and TV show, and addressed young women’s issues—which was almost unheard of there. Then we got an offer to go to Peru for a similar program, and Jamaica. We got invited to Swaziland, then Australia for the Festival of Voices last July–where we taught four Sweet Honey songs to 200 people in two days and then sang three in concert.”
Looking back to Sweet Honey in the Rock’s origins in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement—founder Reagon had been a member of The Freedom Singers, the movement’s paramount African-American singing group—Maillard observes the current trend of activism among musicians.
“They probably haven’t heard our records or seen our recent concerts or videos,” she acknowledges. “So we’re trying to stay current and in public as much as possible so as not to be preaching to the choir. We want to expand our audience and show people that this is who we are, and we’re not just jumping on a trend or bandwagon, but have been doing it for at least a good 40 years. We’ve always been socially conscious individuals, and we really want more people to know what we offer and be uplifted by the work that we give.”
To this end, Sweet Honey has heightened its social media presence on Facebook and Twitter.
“We’re constantly posting!” says Maillard.
[The Examiner wrote the CD liner notes for …Twenty-Five… and Sweet Honey In The Rock: A Tribute-Live! Jazz At Lincoln Center.]