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Q and A: Sweet Honey in the Rock

Jacquinn Williams

Celebrity Series of Boston — a nonprofit arts presenter — recently brought “Sweet Honey in the Rock” to Symphony Hall. A six-member, all female acapella group comprised of Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson and Shirley Childress Saxton, Sweet Honey has been touring the world with their unique musical style for more than 30 years.  

Started in the Black Repertory Theater in Washington D.C., Sweet Honey is balm for the soul. Though they sing all kinds of music, some original and some remakes, it was not until they performed an eerie sounding African tune that Sweet Honey shined brightly.

It was a chant, by the Mbuti people in homage to nature. The Mbuti people are from the Congo region of Africa who believe that the environment is God. Ysaye Barnwell led the chant, which erupted into a fugue that included Sweet Honey and eager members of the audience.  The chant itself Barnwell explained is like “imitating the sound of God.”

Before their appearance, the Banner talked with Sweet Honey member Carol Maillard.  Maillard — a Philadelphia native — is a violinist, actress and producer who counts sleeping as her favorite pastime.       

Tell me about the beginning of Sweet Honey.

The theater (DC Black Repertory Theater) gave birth to it. The theater director asked Bernice Raegan Johnson to put a singing group together.  At first she resisted, but later gave in. We would have rehearsals and different people would come if they could fit it into their schedules. But after some time, Bernice chose a specific day and time for rehearsals and only four of us came.

Well, it seems like whoever was supposed to comes, did.

Exactly. The name came from a song she [Bernice] had written. When we started singing it, we thought it would be a great name for the group.

Since you guys are all spread out, when there’s a performance, what’s the preparation process like?

 When we have a show we rehearse three to four times a week for a month. We’re always bringing in new material so there’s a lot to keep on top of.  Sweet Honey is a small operation. Everything is done by the women. [There’s] a lot to process, work on and study.

Have you all thought about the next generation of Sweet Honey? How will it live on?

That’s a dream. It’s hard enough to keep ourselves going. We still have to earn a living; we haven’t hit our stride yet.  We’re enthusiastic about the group but we’re not sitting on our laurels. There aren’t enough laurels to sit on. Not enough media presence. We’re always looking for new ways to express ourselves. We’re trying to use art to inspire … to change people’s hearts and minds. There are a lot of things to accomplish.