Freedom singers who cannot rest


By Norm Dixon

"We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of black men, black mothers' sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers' sons
We who believe in freedom cannot rest."

Sweet Honey in the Rock is as passionate in its views as it is about music. The beauty and power of the unaccompanied voices of these five strong, confident African American women give their messages of protest, hope, struggle, love and liberation a force that has to be experienced first-hand.

For once the publicist's hype seems to match the reality. Reading through a thick pile of reviews of Sweet Honey concerts, two words crop up continually: "mesmerising" and "overwhelming".

Bruce Elder, critic for the Sydney Morning Herald, perhaps came closest to summarising the consensus when he wrote following their concert in 1990: "[They] radiate strength and beauty ... in more than 20 years of reviewing concerts I have never been so deeply moved and so elated by a performance."

Sweet Honey draws from the rich tradition of African American choral music, beginning in slavery days when newly arrived Africans, forbidden to possess or play musical instruments, worked in the plantations to the accompaniment of songs set to the rhythm of their labour. Later, these work songs and spirituals formed the basis of gospel music. Southern gospel formed the basis of the music of the black civil rights movement.

To this Sweet Honey adds its vocal interpretations of diverse musics of the African diaspora — blues, reggae, African tribal melodies, jazz, R'n'B and rap.

Sweet Honey in the Rock has been performing now for 19 years. At its core is founder and driving force, chief writer and musical director Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Reagon grew up in a "concerned and conscious" family. The religious music she was weaned on began to change after the 1954 Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of public schools in the southern United States. She was soon active in the civil rights movement and expelled from the all-black Albany (Georgia) State College for her militancy. She became a full-time civil rights activist.

Music was integral to the movement. It gave the demonstrators strength and confidence. In 1961, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed the SNCC Freedom Singers to raise consciousness and funds; Reagon was a founding member.

The Freedom Singers travelled the country in an old Buick station reds of meetings and protests, and were often arrested. The spirit of the Freedom Singers lives on in today's Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Nineteen years ago, Bernice Reagon, then vocal director for the D.C. Black Repertory Theatre, called a rehearsal for what would soon become Sweet Honey in the Rock. Only three women turned up. "I was disappointed", she told the Washington Post, "but I was fairly dictatorial, so I started singing and it just fell in place and it was tight. We got through the first song and we looked at each other and went 'Yeah!'."

The other members are: Ysaye Maria Barnwell, who joined the group in 1979; Nitanju Bolade Casel, who has extensive knowledge of, and continues to research, African-derived traditions; Aisha Kahlil, who has moved the group into vocal improvisation and is their strongest blues singer; Evelyn Harris, who joined in 1974 and composed their song "Emergency", nominated for a Grammy award in 1988.

Sweet Honey in the Rock's third Australian tour kicks off in Sydney on August 14.

Ysaye Maria Barnwell will also be conducting workshops in African American singing traditions in conjunction with the Sydney Acappella Association in Sydney, Melbourne and Alice Springs. The Sydney workshop is scheduled for Friday, August 7, 7.30 p.m. The workshops will cost $25/$20 concession. For the dates in other cities, or to book, phone (02) 264 9466.