Sweet Honey in the Rock a cappella group celebrates anniversary in Park City
What: Sweet Honey in the Rock
When: 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 24
Where: The Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd.
A cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock is celebrating its 45th anniversary, and, according to Carol Maillard, the Grammy-nominated ensemble of African American women is looking forward to opening the Park City Institute’s 2018-19 Main Stage season this Saturday.
“I had heard that’s what we will be doing,” Maillard, a founding member, said. “I’m glad we can be there in that capacity.”
The concert, which is set to be performed at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, will consist of songs and stories culled from the group’s history.
“We’re going to do our regular concert with the songs in our repertoire, and we always talk about where the group came from,” Maillard said.
Sweet Honey in the Rock originated in 1973 in association with with the Black Repertory Company, a Washington, D.C. theater organization. The group back then was led by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who retired in 2004.
“We came from a socially and culturally conscious group whose performances were inspired by the experiences of our community,” Maillard said. “We learned Civil Rights songs, spirituals, children’s games and made-up stuff that fit the show.”
At that time the headlines were about Watergate, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Today, as Maillard pointed out, the big news stories have a similar ring — the Trump Administration’s many scandals, perpetual war in the Middle East and the rights of a wide range of marginalized groups.
“You know that old saying,” she said, ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’”
Over the years, Sweet Honey – which takes its name from a verse in Psalms that describes a land so prosperous that honey would flow from cracks in the rocks — has continued to cultivate its art.
“We are always doing something different,” Maillard said. “We keep rearranging songs people know, or we’ll bring something back that we haven’t performed in a while, and we’ll doing something brand new.”
Another evolutionary path for the group’s work includes collaborations with other arts organizations. Sweet Honey has worked with the world renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre, the Toronto-based world-music band Sultans of String and Cantus, a men’s a capella group.
Those projects inspire more creativity from Sweet Honey in the Rock, which today consists of Maillard, fellow founding member Louise Robinson, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahill and sign language for the hearing impaired interpreter Barbara Hunt.
“Anytime you work with others, you learn from them and they learn from you,” she said. “My primary training is acting, and when you work in a theater production, even if you are the only actor, you work with a director. You work with the costume designer. The costume designer works with the characters. That’s a jam, and it encourages and inspires.”
The independent group does face its challenges.
“We are a very small organization, and we don’t have a label or a press rep or executive director,” Maillard said. “The four core singers run the group and run the business. That sometimes takes away from the creativity, and you don’t have time to sit down at the piano to make new music.”
Still, the women find ways to get down to business when it counts.
“I have learned over the years, that when we have an assignment, like an upcoming album, to make, we hunker down and do it,” she said.
While it feels great to make art and hone creative skills, Maillard said the ultimate reward is interacting with fans.
“The first week in November we were doing a residency at the University of Chicago, and the first night we were there, the audience got the opportunity to talk with us,” she said. “It was emotionally just overwhelming, because there was so much love when we were told of what our music has done for people in their lives. Whether they were dealing with difficult situations or sharing it with their children, Sweet Honey’s music was always there for them.”
The lyrics are about issues that people face in today’s world including love, immigration, environmental balance as well as racial and gender equality, Maillard said.
“We sing about the whole panorama of being alive,” she said. “We want more people to hear our music and be healed by it. We want more people to become a part of the Sweet Honey family.”
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