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How Sweet It Is 

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Wednesday, Jan 24 2001
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Press releases about Sweet Honey in the Rock refer to the quintet as "her" and "she," flouting grammatical convention. (One example: "She has established herself as a matchless source from which flows the rhythmic stories of her African ancestors.") In reference to another group, this habit could be read as pretentious affectation -- or simply as a misrepresentation of the whole by emphasizing a single member.

But Sweet Honey's conflation into one female pronoun has a greater resonance: It speaks to the group's 25-plus-year history, a legacy that has forged an entity stronger than any of its component parts. Although founder Bernice Johnson Reagon has been with Sweet Honey throughout and original member Carol Maillard rejoined in 1989, the other singers and the group's ASL interpreter joined an existing musical institution, of sorts, with a well-developed philosophy and set of traditions.

That philosophy and those traditions derive from an even greater history, that of black women in music, from wordless chants and sermonettes to reggae and blues standards. It's an uplifting oeuvre, with its themes of struggle and survival. Naturally, Sweet Honey's songs focus on using music, and women's voices in particular, as an agent to overcome obstacles: The cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" on the group's 25th anniversary album, ...twenty-five..., is a perfect example. That's not to say all of the ensemble's pieces deal with such weighty topics; its Grammy-nominated new children's album, Still the Same Me, is full of lighthearted tunes with titles like "I Love to Laugh," and "Nature Song."

Whatever the message, these women never neglect the music. Primarily an a cappella group, Sweet Honey fully explores the possibilities of mixed voices. Rich choral harmonies alternate with rounds and soaring solos, supported by percussive background vocals. Whether listeners share Sweet Honey's beliefs, they'll have to believe in her dulcet tones.

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Katherine Brown

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