When Sweet Honey in the Rock sang at the White House, a a year ago this week, First Lady Michelle Obama introduced the Grammy–winning vocal ensemble as “a national treasure” and “one of my favorite groups in the whole wide world.”
The group, performing Sunday at First African Baptist Church as part of the city’s Black Heritage Festival, has been at the top of the a capella ranks since Richard Nixon was president. For nearly four decades, no one has done what they do any better.
Sweet Honey is a six–member, all–female vocal group specializing in complex, multi–hued harmonies, performed without instruments except for the occasional percussive shaker, egg or tambourine.
The ensemble began in 1973 as an offshoot of the D.C. Black Repertory Theatre Company, a professional theater and stage organization that also offered classes in stagecraft, movement, voice, scene study, improvisation and other arts.
The company’s vocal director, Bernice Johnson Reagon, was persuaded to form a vocal group that the company could send out for concerts, and to outreach programs, as a sort of living, breathing business card for its school.
Carol Maillard taught a vocal class for beginners there; she was one of the first singers Reagon recruited for Sweet Honey in the Rock. Except for the few years she took off to pursue her other career, acting, Maillard has been part of the group since day one (Reagon retired from Sweet Honey in 2004).
Sweet Honey in the Rock’s stage repertoire consists of spirituals, gospel music, jazz, pop, songs about the hard lessons of history and songs with messages of hope for these times of upheaval.
Most recently, Sweet Honey contributed the song “My Family” to the HBO documentary special A Family Is a Family Is a Family: A Rosie O’Donnell Celebration.
Was the goal always to do historical music from different eras, and make social statements?
Carol Maillard: I think when we started there was no goal. It’s not like we said “We’re going to start this group, and go up to the highest heights, and do all this political music” and blah, blah. It was a group. We had an opportunity to sing, and we sang.
Bernice had had other groups in the past – she was a few years older than us and she had experience being on tour, and doing material. She was working on her doctorate, and she had two kids. In the very beginning, there were 10 of us, male and female. There were a lot of things going on for a lot of us. And we also had our theatrical productions we had to do.
The other group that comes to mind is Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which is also an a capella ensemble. But their thing is strictly African songs.
Carol Maillard: One of the most unfortunate things, for me, when I think about how Sweet Honey in the Rock is perceived, is that it’s a limited perception. We’re a vocal group. And we have traditions that we honor.
But we’re also alive, and we’re also contemporary. We also like to dance and sing and listen to different kinds of music. Some of us really like jazz. Some of us really like world music, Middle Eastern music, some of us like show music. Several of us are classically trained in string instruments.
People don’t really know what we do, who we are and the range of material that we cover. One thing that’s consistent is the music does deal with issues that are important to us.
Do you think the perception out there is that “these are women singing African spirituals”?
Carol Maillard: Yes, or gospel, or those old Civil Rights tunes. A lot of people say “Oh, I saw you back in ’87.” Well, there’ve been 23 different women who have been a part of this group, and because of that, you’re going to have influences from everyone’s musical perspective.
We do love songs, we do blues, we do rap, we have hip hop and R&B feeling, we’ve got neo–soul feel, we do music for children. And it might be that because our range is so wide, it’s very difficult for Americans to perceive what that means.
Because of your other career has Sweet Honey ever gotten in the way, or vice versa?
Carol Maillard: In ’77 I left for New York, I was gone – I’m an actress, so I’m going to act! The group was very rooted in D.C., everybody had to be from D.C., and there was no way that anything else could happen. I was doing a lot of shows, and different kinds of work, and traveling. It was hard for me to keep going with the group. So in ’77 I had to declare I was officially gone, because at the top of ’78 I was on my way to Australia. And I knew I was going to be there three or four months. I came back as a sub, which I did for three or four years.
You’ve done several Law and Order episodes over the years. Are you still acting?
Carol Maillard: The group does not give me time to really do much of anything, sad to say. Every now and then something might come up that I’m able to do, but keeping the group running takes a lot of work. And we all participate. We all have to function in that realm.
Last year, you were invited to work with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater as part of its 50th anniversary tour. What was that like?
Carol Maillard: It was incredible. It was great because of the dancers, because of their attitude, because of the concept behind the work, the creative process of making the music. It was something very different – it wasn’t that somebody was taking music that already existed, we had to make music and help make the story, with the choreographer.
And a very high percentage of the audience was new to Sweet Honey in the Rock. Our audiences knew Ailey, but the Ailey audiences did not all know who Sweet Honey in the Rock was. It was very different to see, a little 35–minute musical.
Savannah Black Heritage Festival
Sweet Honey in the Rock
Where: First African Baptist Church, 23 Montgomery St.
When: At 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 21
Tickets are free and can be picked up starting Wednesday, Feb. 17 at the Savannah Civic Center box office, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave,
Phone: (912) 651–6556
Artist’s Web site: www.sweethoney.com.
Grand Festival Day
With: Youth talent show, health fair, craftmaking center and more
Where: Martin Luther King Arena, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: 9 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 20
Concert: K’Jon, Stephanie Edwards and the SOS Band at 6:30 p.m.