Sweet Honey in the Rock celebrates music and 40 years

Sweet Honey in the Rock performing at the White House in 2009. At the Merriam they'll be joined by a jazz trio, the Honeymen.
Sweet Honey in the Rock performing at the White House in 2009. At the Merriam they'll be joined by a jazz trio, the Honeymen. (RON EDMONDS / AP)
Posted: February 22, 2013

On Thursday at the Merriam Theater, Sweet Honey in the Rock will be bringing it - and then some.

"We have everything," says longtime (and retiring) member Ysaye Maria Barnwell, "from African to spiritual to doo-wop to folk to jazz to civil-rights music - we have it all."

This year is the group's 40th anniversary. Since 1973, Sweet Honey - present lineup Barnwell, Louise Robinson, Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Carol Maillard, and impassioned signer Shirley Childress Saxton - has crisscrossed the world, with song-and-dance performances that combine musical journey, dance, spoken-word, political statement, and ecstatic exploration of the human voice.

Best known for its earthy a cappella, Sweet Honey will bring to the Merriam a jazz trio dubbed the Honeymen. "We'd never given extensive space to jazz, really, even though we'd all listened to it," Barnwell says. "But this gives us that interplay between human and musical instruments."

The show, and the album Sweet Honey in the Rock: A Tribute - Live! Jazz at Lincoln Center, released Tuesday by Appleseed label in West Chester, arose from a group meditation on the singers who had shaped them most.

"I grew up with Odetta, and she became like a sister to me," Barnwell says. "Louise went to high school with Miriam Makeba's sister. When Abbey Lincoln passed, Aisha was definite that she wanted to perform her music. And Nina [Simone] - we all loved her. In their art, commitment, and personal struggles, they were landmarks for us all."

In these women, Barnwell sees a crucial continuum linking music and the civil-rights movement: "African Americans have a different way of seeing music. There would have been no movement without the music. These women helped us realize who we are, and what our music and our country is."

So there is a political element to what Sweet Honey does, but it's "to start a conversation. When we released [2010's] Are We a Nation?, that was a response to the Arizona immigration law. We weren't saying, 'This is how it should or shouldn't be.' We were asking, 'If we come from all over the world, what nation are we? How can we exclude if we're from everywhere?' "

Inclusion, glorious worldwide inclusion, of music and stories, is the nectar of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Barnwell, who turns 67 the night of the show, has been with the group since 1979 and will retire in May, "to let other doors open." Until then, she'll join with her sister singers "to do it the way we do it."

Sweet Honey in the Rock: Remembering Odetta and Miriam, with a salute to Abbey Lincoln, 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Kimmel Center, Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad St. Tickets: $37-$57. Information: 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org.

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