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January 22, 2004

A cappella group tries to reach out to people who 'are not heard'

From: San Antonio Express, TX - Jan 22, 2004

By Jim Beal Jr.

San Antonio Express-News

It's a cacophonous world. From pop music to talk radio to the screamers on TV shows, we're living in noisy times.

But cutting through the racket, as they've done for three decades, come the women of Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The a cappella group, founded in 1973 by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, often uses hand percussion instruments, but it's the sound of five voices, and the work of a sign-language interpreter, that truly powers Sweet Honey's vast repertoire of songs.

And that repertoire encompasses original songs, classics and traditional numbers, all designed to entertain while educating about topics ranging from civil rights to the environment, from peace to family violence.

"The human voice is the original personal instrument," said Carol Maillard from her New York City home. "Singing and making sounds with the voice have been with us since long before physical instruments were developed. The human voice can relay healing and inspiration to every person. And even if one has no physical voice, there's an inner voice."

Sweet Honey in the Rock — Maillard, Reagon, Ysaye M. Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil and sign-language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton — will be in concert at 4 p.m. Sunday in the Charline McCombs Empire Theater.

This is the farewell tour for Reagon, who is retiring from the group.

"She's not retiring from the world," Maillard said with a laugh. "She'll be able to do many projects — and rest. She'll write books and songs and continue to make a difference."

Sweet Honey in the Rock has always been about making a difference.

"I think our goal is to reach out to people whose thoughts, dreams and ideas are not heard," Maillard said. "I can't say we offer an alternative voice, because a lot of people feel the way we do. People may not like everything we say and everything we sing, but we may come to an understanding about women, children, African American culture and politics."

Saxton's signing is another way the group makes a difference. While her work is essential for the hearing-impaired, it'll also captivate those with excellent hearing.

"It's another way to make the music accessible to everyone who wants to experience it," Maillard said.

And Sweet Honey's music features something for almost everyone. The group draws from African traditions, from gospel, reggae, blues, doo-wop, hip-hop and more. The variety is represented in concerts and on the group's recordings, the latest of which is "The Women Gather," released last year on the Earthbeat! label.

For years, Sweet Honey in the Rock worked for 10 months and took two months off. This year the group is taking a four-month hiatus. Despite being a founding member, the Philadelphia-born Maillard doesn't describe herself as a singer.

"I always say that first, I'm an actress," she said. "But my acting was not able to continue."

Still, Maillard did land a small part last year in an episode of "Law & Order: SVU." "I hope to be able to do a little more of that during the hiatus," Maillard said.

But the actress/singer did offer some voice tips.

"Learn how to breathe properly," she said. "Don't try to sound like anybody else. Find your own voice. Discover what's unique about what you do and work it. And there are so many people out there who are making good money and are poor singers. Don't imitate them."

A Sweet Honey in the Rock audience is likely to be as varied as an audience can get. And, in these times of disposable pop stars with limited talent, at best, Maillard doesn't gripe about Sweet Honey not topping the charts.

"But we would love for more and more people who have not been exposed to us to hear us," she said. "We have a lot of young fans but we would like the current generation of listeners to know us.

"We have a lot to offer. We're African American women running our own business. We would like more people to be aware of our ideas, our sounds, our songs."

Still, there are a lot of people who are aware of the group. In 1993 Anchor Books published Dr. Reagon's biography of the group, "We Who Believe in Freedom — Sweet Honey in the Rock Still on the Journey." This year, filmmaker Stanley Nelson will release a documentary about the group.

Oh, yeah, and about that quiet, Sweet Honey in the Rock is not dead set against amplification. The group is on a tour-within-a-tour, interspersing a cappella shows with "Eveningsong," a night backed by a rock band, Toshi Reagon (Dr. Reagon's daughter) and the band Big Lovely. There'll be an Eveningsong performance Saturday at 8 p.m. at Hogg Auditorium in Austin. See for details.

"It's a little loud, but it's kicking," Maillard added with a laugh. "People are shocked."

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Where: Charline McCombs Empire Theater, 226 N. St. Mary's St.

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $15-$25 at Ticketmaster outlets, Carver Community Cultural Center box office; call (210) 207-2234

Portions © 2004 KENS 5 and the San Antonio Express-News. All rights reserved.