Many music lovers can tell you the time, place, and setting when they first heard a beloved song, musician or group that they have held close to their hearts over the course of a lifetime. Some would say that a singular performance or album or lyric transformed them.
Maybe it was the concept album Talking Book by Stevie Wonder, expanding and evolving from classic Motown; or the social conscientious suite wrapped in the soul of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Maybe it was Mahalia Jackson singing gospel in 1950 for the first time in Carnegie Hall’s history; or Marion Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 at the behest of the Roosevelts after being denied permission by the Daughters of the Revolution to sing at an integrated concert. Any one of these and countless others evidence a rich history of songs that move mountains, voices that call to action, melodies that soothe, and words that wrap you like an embrace, rattle you like a fist in protest, and release you like a good cry.
That’s how someone would begin a lifelong love and appreciation for Sweet Honey in the Rock, whose name derives from Psalm 81:16 and the promise to a people to be fed, nurturing honey from a rock. And fed well was the audience at the South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center, last Saturday, Jan. 26.
The warm space that is the concert hall at SMDCA felt immediately like an intimate living room, where one had simply gone to sit a spell and chew the fat, where you could cry and laugh in the same breath. Prophets, preachers, and story tellers, the performers — Ysaye M. Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson and Shirley Childress Saxton (the ASL interpreter) — moved and sung like water, both relenting and forceful. They seamlessly moved through a simple choreography as they changed chairs, played hand percussion instruments, or shared leads in a song. Each woman had her moment where she stood, danced, and let the music transform her and all those around her. From soulful riffs to jazz scats, from playful improvisations to intricate harmonies, these artists of conscience are artists of learned and perfected skill.
The music was incredibly eclectic, painting a wide landscape from the rich colors of gospel, blues, reggae, jazz, African chants, spirituals, and lullabies. In two sets with an intermission in between, they performed from the songbooks of Nina Simone’s Come Ye, Odetta’s Seeline Woman, Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Me, and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
From self-composed songs or traditional hymns, to chants and poems from as far away as South Africa and Mali in West Africa, they urged us to welcome and suffer both the “good and ill winds” and to be “brave, humble and true.” They urged us to wear our hair as we like, “whether you got good or bad hair…as long as it looks good to you.” They asked us to be wary of greed and to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery,” or, as in Louise Robinson’s song that that the whole audience sang together as an outro of the first half, “let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”
There is nothing like Sweet Honey in the Rock. If you ever get a chance to see them and hear them, go hungry… go and be fed.