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Sweet Honey in the Rock harmonizes about commonality.

By Joe Tarr

FEBRUARY 21, 2000:  When Carol Maillard was growing up, the few times she heard about the achievements of African Americans in school were extraordinary—at times unsettling—moments.

"Anytime I heard anything about anyone black, you were either very proud or would giggle about it. It was so foreign. Why is that?"

On Sunday, Maillard will be celebrating Black History Month with the a cappella group she helped found, Sweet Honey in the Rock. Singing in a range of blues, gospel, folk, doo wop, and jazz stylings—and talking about what these songs means to them—the group connects with the past.

Part of the African American Appalachian Arts "Find the Good and Praise It" concert series, the Sweet Honey show will donate all proceeds to the Alex Haley International Literary and Storytelling Festival slated for August 8 to 11.

Black History Month has tried to rectify the denial and lack of attention given to the contributions of African Americans. In an ideal world, of course, this wouldn't be necessary.

"The other day, I was teasing [my son] surfing around TV. I said, 'Ohh, there's a lot of Black movies on. You get to see everything in one month,'" Maillard says. "It's information we should be learning all the time. We should have an Hispanic history month, and an Asian history month. We've always learned about European history and culture—that's always what Americans have learned," Maillard says.

But Caucasians should not be defensive about setting aside time to celebrate the achievements of black Americans. It's a history that they share, and can celebrate as well.

"All of us are here. We all live with one another, it's all our history. Whether we know it or not, we are working in a collective...We really are. There's some level of cooperation that's actually going on on a regular basis. It's all of us."

The aural history lesson Sweet Honey offers is more personal and ephemeral, and speaks less of moments, victories, and achievements, and more of the emotions, pains, joys, and motivations that linger through history, connecting people of different times who do not know each others' names. It speaks of problems, accomplishments, and artistry that may not have been recorded in books or officially recognized, but persists with no words to name it.

Critic Laura Post writes of the group: "The strength of Sweet Honey lies within its repertoire rooted in the tradition of African congregational choral style and its many extensions. One hears the moan of blues, the power of early 20th century gospel, echoes of the community quartet, and jazz choral vocalizations freshly tinged with church melodic and harmonic runs. A Sweet Honey in the Rock concert is a transforming experience, drenching audiences with harmonies. The rhythms change, leads change, and women dance: breathtaking music."

Sweet Honey in the Rock was born in 1973 at an innovative theater company called the D.C. Black Repertory Company. Bernice Johnson Reagon taught a vocal workshop there, where the people sang a cappella. The members—both men and women—loved the music.

"The intent was to sing many of the songs that had been used in theatrical productions," she says. "We were doing very good vocal work."

One of the members had suggested they form a group. Shortly after that, Reagon was invited to sing at a blues festival at Howard University. She asked if she could bring along some friends. And Sweet Honey had its first gig, she says.

Aside from their voices, the group uses only hand and body percussion as accompaniment. The Grammy-winning group has recorded 11 albums, and has been credited with establishing a cappella as a legitimate pop music style.

Maillard hasn't been with Sweet Honey for all of the past 27 years. The group has had an evolving membership, with more than 20 members. (Besides Maillard and Reagon, the group currently includes Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Ysaye Maria Barnwell, and Shirley Childress Johnson, who is a sign language interpreter.)

Maillard has also performed on Broadway shows like Eubie, Comin' Uptown (with Gregory Hines), Don't Get God Started (with BeBe and Marvin Winans), and Home. She's appeared in several TV movies and commercials.

Maillard says a cappella singing is no more difficult than singing when there is a band supporting you.

"You can't structure the music like you've got a band behind you filling up holes. I don't think it's any harder doing a cappella. The difficult thing is knowing who you're writing for, how they sing, how the group performs, or the particular harmonies the group likes to perform."

Inspirations and models for a cappella singing existed at the time, namely gospel choirs and church groups, Maillard says. But the style was also used in the Civil Rights protest music, which was typically sung outside without any instrumentation.

Everyone in the group takes a turn at writing and arranging songs. And each concert is led by a different member, who selects the songs and talks about what they mean to her.

For Sweet Honey, the music is more than just entertainment. Rather, it is a link to history and a force for change—personal, social, and political. The group gives several workshops for both children and adults, on singing, gospel music, traditional African rhythms and improvisation, and African American music as a tool for cultural survival.

But for Maillard, the music is always personal first and foremost, rather than didactic.

"The people in Sweet Honey, they're writers. However, we basically pull in things that mean something to us as individuals. So if there's an issue in our minds and a song comes up with that, or we hear something somewhere, we think, 'Let's do an arrangement with that.' We don't sit around and say a song should be about something. It could be love songs or children songs."

The personal connection—not a conscious intent to teach or to create change—is what is most vital to music. "When you have people writing about what's important to them, you will have people in the audience hear that and it moves them."

Connecting people—whatever their race—is ultimately what Black History Month is all about, Maillard says. Maillard says she sees the effect learning about African American history has had on the country.

"You're opening the doors. It's a mindset you have to change. People are changing their way of thinking," she says. "It's history, it's life. It's the world."

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