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Educating with African chants and jazz

by Lenise Willis

Music has always carried the power of making us feel, whether it’s a spiritual hymn, a simple but ancient African chant, or the smooth sounds of jazz. One group, Sweet Honey In The Rock, is visiting the area to share such a wide variety of tunes, to not only help the audience feel something deeper, but to also educate them in African-American tradition and activism.

“Listening to Sweet Honey In The Rock is a true spiritual experience,” said Phyllis Tuttle, of High Point Theatre. “Flawless a capella voices that blend in perfect harmony, music sung with heart-felt emotion, delivered with passion, strength and power—all combine to create music that is uplifting and inspirational.

“This Grammy Award-winning ensemble’s music is amazing, whether singing the old traditional spirituals or their more contemporary anthems reflective of the important issues of today.”

The group was actually formed in 1973 as a quartet at a workshop at the D.C. Black Repertory Theatre Company in Washington. The founding members drew their name from the first song they learned, “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” which is based on a Biblical psalm. “Sweet Honey speaks of a land that is so rich when you break the rocks open, honey flows. And we thought it was something like us African-American women . . . strong like a rock, but inside [there’s] honey – sweet,” said Louise Robinson, one of the founders.

Part of High Point Theatre’s mission is to provide the community with a venue for diverse cultural events, which is why Sweet Honey In The Rock is such a great fit for its audience. The group, comprised of world-renowned African-American women, uses music and movement to share African traditions and African-American legacies. Its members— Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel and Shirley Childress— sing a capella, sometimes accompanied by hand percussion instruments, to capture the complex sounds of blues, traditional gospel hymns, reggae, African chants, ancient lullabies and jazz improvisation.

“(The group) not only provides a rich entertainment experience, it also provides the community with a learning opportunity due to their message of peace, compassion and understanding,” Tuttle said. “It’s one of the only musical groups to incorporate American Sign Language into the performance so those with hearing impairment can participate as well.”

The group is quite accomplished. Sweet Honey In The Rock has been advocating non-violent activism for more than 40 years.

“Their inspirational message of equality and social justice for all is done through song and poetry, delivered with the utmost love, respect and conviction,” Tuttle said. “The group members share their rich heritage through music and dress, educating young people about their ancestry, encouraging the next generation to be informed and involved, to respect and care about their heritage and one another, and to affect change starting within their own communities.”

Since its creation, the group has appeared at various festivals, including the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife at the National Mall in Washington. After releasing its first album in 1976, the group has continued to gain momentum, performing at the U.N. World Conference on Women, and being the subject of two PBS documentaries: Gotta Make This Journey and Sweet Honey In The Rock: Raise Your Voice.

They have recorded film soundtracks, received Grammy nominations and even appeared in a PBS special on the first national observance of Martin Luther King Day, as well as performed at the unveiling ceremonies for the monument for Dr. King on the National Mall.

Tuttle says the theatre hopes the audience will not only enjoy the performance, but really stop and think about it — to mull over how much has been accomplished in the African-American community and how they can work together with others to create a positive change.

“The High Point Theatre has had many great performances in the past but this one is unique in that it consists of only a capella harmony, it beautifully represents the past, present and future of the African-American community, and it embraces those with special needs (hearing impairment) so they too may participate,” Tuttle said. “We’re proud to present this powerful group of women to the Triad and look forward to feedback from those who attend the performance.”

“The old spirituals are going to be joyous, speaking directly to the soul and touching the heart. It may just relay a message reminding people how their actions and words can either heal or inflame emotions, thoughts and deeds. Just as great art should, it certainly will affect everyone differently.” !

WANNA go?

Sweet Honey In The Rock performs at High Point Theatre, 220 E. Commerce Ave., for one performance only Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35-$45. For tickets and more information visit highpointtheatre.com or call 336-887-3001.

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