Sweet Honey in the Rock celebrates 40 years of inspiration


Sweet Honey in the Rock is facing the big 4-0 this year, but the milestone simply seems to impel this iconic African-American women's vocal group to reach for more stars, more awards, more ways to express themselves.

Due for a 7:30 p.m. concert Tuesday at the Valentine Theatre, the ever-evolving, Grammy Award-winning musical phenomenon born out of the Civil Rights movement has big plans for 2013, starting with the Toledo show.

"It will be a Sweet Honey experience, to be sure," promises Carol Maillard, one of the founding members.

Just what is that "Sweet Honey experience?"

It's the swell of strong women's voices in tight harmonies singing gospel and ethnic songs that energize, challenge, and encourage.

It's vocal versions of trumpets, cellos, French horn, and walking bass.

It's irresistible African-inspired rhythms created with the voice, fingers, and simple folk instruments.

Maillard's run with Sweet Honey dates to the 1970s, when she was studying music and theater at Catholic University of America and working with the D.C. Black Repertory Company in Washington.

During that time, Bernice Johnson Reagon, a civil rights activist and Freedom Singer, wanted a women's vocal group to carry the message of equality further. She, Maillard, Louise Robinson, and others began developing their own arrangements of traditional and social cause music as well as writing their own songs.

Sweet Honey's public debut came in 1973 at Howard University's W.C. Handy Blues Festival. More invitations followed -- from the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Chicago, the Mariposa Festival in Toronto, the Michigan Women's Music Festival, and, in 1977, a tour of California.

By then, the group had released its first album, "Sweet Honey in the Rock," and was becoming a must-have participant in cause-related festivals around the country.

In 1979, speech pathologist and performer Ysaye Barnwell joined the group. She and Maillard remain as the most senior members of Sweet Honey, which has embraced some 23 different singers, according to Maillard.

Singing with Sweet Honey is an avocation for its members. Like Maillard, a stage and film actor, composer and arranger, and Barnwell, a speech pathologist, author, teacher, and clinician, they maintain busy professional lives beyond this group.

"People go home and revamp. We have a lot of coming and going," said Maillard. She rejoined the group in 1992.

"We basically show up for a gig," she said of their tour, which began in Florida and will cover much of Texas this winter.

Coming to sing here will be a sextet, the typical size group on a big national tour this winter. Besides Maillard, Robinson, and Barnwell, today's Sweet Honey includes Aisha Kahlil, Shirley Saxton, and Nitanju Bolade Casel.

Their program will dip deep into the rich history Sweet Honey has amassed in hundreds of their own shows as well as collaborations with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, with the Live at Lincoln Center Jazz ensemble.

"The repertoire varies. This show is during Black History Month, so some of those themes will be explored," added Maillard. Also on the program will be selections from a new double album due to take a bow this spring.

They may sing "Are We A Nation?" That's Sweet Honey's musical contribution to Border Songs, a two-CD recording effort featuring dozens of groups and styles released last fall to benefit the Arizona humanitarian group, No More Deaths.

Tickets for Sweet Honey in the Rock's Tuesday concert are $47 at 419-242-2787 or www.valentinetheatre.com.

Contact Sally Vallongo at: svallongo@theblade.com.