As it enters its fifth decade, Sweet Honey in the Rock can’t help but feel a little restless. Its membership has shifted again, altering with it the dynamics within the veteran African-American female vocal group, but so have the rhythms of the world – particularly the social, personal and political issues that have long been addressed within its music.
It short, you don’t experience a history as extensive and formidable as that of Sweet Honey in the Rock and not get used to a very honest and unavoidable constant: change.
“You always have to try new things,” said Carol Maillard, one of the group’s founding members. “With a lot of groups, I think they stick to their formula simply because audiences want that. I don’t know how those artists maintain that for 15, 20 or 30 years. But we all have such diverse interests. Even though a lot of the subjects and topics in our songs reflect the politics and the social fabric of the country, we all just really want to be able to express how we feel in general about life. Sometimes it’s not related to anything that’s going on in the world. It’s just what we’re experiencing at the moment.”
What exists most in the here and now for Sweet Honey in the Rock, aside from its return performance for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is a revamped lineup. With the 2013 retirement of co-founding member Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell, the group went from a vocal quintet to a quartet (its initial configuration) and cut its first studio album in nine years, #LoveInEvolution. The recording will be released on Friday.
“We’ve been a quartet, we’ve been a sextet,” Maillard said. “I’ve been onstage when we’ve been a trio and we’ve been a quintet. We’ve sung with full symphony orchestras, we’ve sung with choirs and sung with trios. We’ve sung with just percussion and bass. We’ve done a lot of different combinations. So when Ysaye retired in ’13, we had auditions and decided to have Navasha Daya, a very fine artist from the Baltimore area, join us. We enjoyed that immensely, but just started thinking, ‘What can we do?’ I was always of the opinion that we had a strong quartet. I just knew that.”
But the retooled Sweet Honey quartet – Maillard, Louise Robinson (Sweet Honey’s other original singer), Aisha Kahlil (a member since 1981) and Nitanju Bolade Casel (who joined in 1985 and also works as the group’s producer) – would be different from previous rosters. Known primarily as an a capella ensemble, Sweet Honey began touring regularly with an instrumentalist – specifically, with the Baltimore/Washington, DC jazz bassist Romeir Mendez.
“I think it was Nitanju that said, ‘Why don’t we just have a bass?’ The rest of us thought. ‘Yeah. We can do that. We can do anything we want to do, actually.’ So when we came to the end of ’14, we were clear we wanted to continue as a quartet with a bass player. So Romeir came along and he had just the right vibe. We really enjoy working with him because he is so conscientious, creative and sensitive to the music.”
On #LoveinEvolution, that music translates into a typically varied assortment of songs that range from environmentally themed originals (The Living Waters) to the powerful combination of a traditional gospel piece (I Don’t Want No Trouble at the River) with a poem penned by Dr. Maya Angelou (When Great Trees Fall). There are also interpretations of two tunes – Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) and Wholly Holy – from Marvin Gaye’s classic and still-topical 1971 album What’s Going On.
“In 2010, when we were five singers, we decided that we wanted to bring in some songs we grew up with, songs that were part of our everyday listening, singing and dancing that were also thought provoking. So there was Marvin Gaye, of course, because What’s Going On is absolutely timeless. That music still resonates. Nitanju brought in Wholy Holy, Aisha brought in Mercy Mercy Me, Ysaye brought in Inner City Blues, (also from What’s Going On). I suggested the Stevie Wonder song Love’s in Need of Love Today. We also had (The Isley Brothers’) Harvest for the World. But Mercy and Holy are the ones that are still with us.”
Equally inspiring is the occasion of Sweet Honey’s WoodSongs appearance. Maillard said the group is honored to be performing in Lexington on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“We just keep taking it day by day and putting our best foot forward… well, our best notes forward. We put our best notes forward and are very glad that we have this opportunity to have great, great songs to share in honor of this day.”
Sweet Honey in the Rock performs at 6:45 tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third, for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Tickets are $20. Call 859-280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.com.