On Feb. 15, the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley helped trumpet venerable ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock’s anniversary celebration by bringing its tour, “Forty and Fierce,” to Nevada County.
The troupe made the Center for the Arts one of its few concert stops — and what a concert it was!
Opening the evening with the whispered words, “Nothin’ lights a fire like a dream deferred,” and a song with words by Langston Hughes and music by founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, the group pulled the hushed audience into their circle of lyrical sound and held it in suspended joy for the rest of the evening.
As always, their harmonies braided seamlessly, punctuated by a myriad of percussive sounds.
As they tenderly sang, “The dead are not under the earth/’Tis the ancestors’ breath in the voice of the earth,” the women imitated the planet’s constant murmur with clicks and sighs and soft ululations so compelling that the venue and the listening audience seemed to fade away to one gentle exhalation.
Sweet Honey in the Rock began carrying its musical message in 1973, and over the years, 23 women have been part of the group, fluctuating from four to six active members at any one time, as well as guests, including on Saturday night, guest bassist Parker McAllister.
Regardless of who performs at any given time (this night included Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson, Aisha Kahlil and Nitanju Bolade Casel), the ensemble’s legacy is the merging of harmony with a tenacious commitment to social justice, equality and freedom.
Their performances during Black History Month, in addition to the Grass Valley appearance, will include Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash., as well as Symphony Hall in Boston.
Employing their diverse mixture of blues, African, jazz, R&B and gospel, the group challenged the audience with the song, “If You Had Lived,” that asks the question of, when confronted with injustice, who would speak up?
The song built in intensity by naming historical figures who did speak out — Fannie Lou Hamer, Paul Robeson and heroes of the Civil Rights Movement — and stressed that all movements are about ordinary people who spoke up so that “we could gather tonight in a celebration of music.”
And with that, they launched into a melange of historical civil rights songs: “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “Freedom On My Mind,” and “These Are Tryin’ Times.” It was a powerful moment as the entire audience sang along.
For some, this was the music of their history; for others, of today; and for still other audience members, children of original civil rights marchers, an introduction to the potent music of protest.
Since 1981, Sweet Honey in the Rock sign language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton has toppled barriers for the hearing impaired.
But Saxton more than signs—her hands are instruments themselves, sometimes like bird wings beating to express a joyful heart, other times like little mouse feet scrabbling against the floor.
She is as much a part of the group’s expression as their voices, and her arms and hands offer an ardent yet delicate musicality.
With a call to environmental activism in “A Song for our Mother,” the ensemble turned their voices into sounds of birdsong, rain drops and the wind, segueing into Marvin Gaye’s iconic “Mercy Mercy Me.” And they didn’t forget the kids. With “I Like It That Way,” they got the audience clapping, stomping, laughing and whoo-whooing in one voice.
Their comment on gun deaths, both on the streets and in war, was expressed with Maillard’s own musical refrain, “Doesn’t matter where you’re livin’/Women gather cryin.” But not everything was a lesson (albeit couched in gorgeous harmonies).
The audience got “churched” on Saturday night with “Since I Lay My Burdens Down,” and “Comin’ Home One Sweet Day” that turned the Center into a powerful tabernacle sing-along that raised the rafters.
Since the group’s founding, Sweet Honey in the Rock has performed throughout the world, including South Africa, Africa, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
They have released 23 recordings and amassed a distinguished list of awards and honors, as well as performing at the unveiling ceremonies for the Martin Luther King monument on the National Mall and an appearance at Nelson Mandela’s 2013 memorial service.
The group has also earned two Grammy nominations and been part of two PBS documentaries. Their latest 2-CD set, “A Tribute — Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center,” pays homage to their foremothers, including Odetta, Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone, among others.
The women ended the evening (or tried to—the SRO audience wouldn’t let them leave without an encore) with a jazz version of “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” their warm, prayerful, euphonic refrains carrying the final message out into the rainy night: “When there is Light in the soul there is Beauty in the person; when there is Beauty in the person there is Harmony in the home; when there is Harmony in the home there is Honor in the nation; when there is Honor in the nation, there is Peace in the World.” Amen.
Lynn Wenzel lives in Grass Valley.