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Sweet Honey's Journey Still Evolving

Sweet Honey in the Rock concert review.

Some singing groups might get a little tired after 22 years--but not Sweet Honey in the Rock. This group of five African-American women singers and one sign-language interpreter is just hitting its stride. It's easy to imagine they wouldn't be tired even after another 22 years.

Though only one of the founding members, Bernice Johnson Reagon, is still with the group, several of its members have been involved for fifteen years or more--and it's clear on stage that these strong voices have become not just an ensemble but a family.

It had been several years since I'd seen the group, and in their tour kick-off in Northampton, Massachusetts October 5, 1996, I was amazed and deighed at how much they've evolved.

Always strong on harmonies and vocal arrangements--the group sings a cappella except for some shekeres and other African light percussion--Sweet Honey has evolved a singing style that combines influnces as diverse as tribal Africa, black American gospel, contemporary classical music, ancient religious chant, and even, at times, hints of New Age musicians such as Andreas Vollenweider.

The singing is deeper and more layered than it used to be, and more of their material has a clearly defined lead singer (with the others filling in behind to create a wall of sound--though not at all in the Phil Spector sense). They've moved away from the style they developed in the 70s and 80s that ephasized the group as a whole rather than its individual voices--and are drawing from a wider range of tradition. Where once their sund was firmly based in the black church, now it includes African world beat (which dominates), blues, rap, and more.

There's also more audience participation. Early in the first set, for instance, bass singer Ysae Barnwell sprang a multi-part round from West Africa on the crowd--dividing us up into about ten sections on the fly. Once she stopped to explain it and try again, the result was stunningly beautiful.

Barnwell, incidentally has an incredible range: probably over two octaves.

One striking change was easy to see. In the past, the members of Sweet Honey generally stayed seated for their entire performance. At this concert, they swayed, danced, incorporated pantomime and theatrical interplay--and it really helped to keep the audience involved and sometimes also on our feet. The chairs were still there, but most of the time at least one of them, and sometimes all, would be empty.

Northampton is known as a music-lovers' town, and this concert certainly helped that reputation. The crowd was wildly enthusiastic, shouting praises, dancing and singing, and clapping to the music, and shaking the building with applause and footstomping. Even after more than two hours of music, the crowd wouldn't let them go--demanding a second encore. And the performers fed on this enthusiasm to perform a truly memorable show.

For more arts coverage, go to the home page of Global Arts Review


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