What do you get when you combine the insistent crooning of Carol Maillard, the otherworldly cry of Aisha Kahlil, the silken tones of Nitanju Bolade Casel, and the rumbles and sighs of Ysaye Barnwell with the driving holler of Bernice Johnson Reagon? You get a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock singing the story of life through the eyes, ears, and voices of these five spirit-filled African-American women.
Sweet Honey's latest release, Sacred Ground, features new compositions from each of the members plus several of Reagon's arrangements of traditional African-American spirituals. It also includes Sonia Sanchez's stirring poem "Stay on the Battlefield."
Feast your eyes on the beautiful array of sacred symbols gathered for the CD booklet cover. From the washboard to the violin, family photos to the Ankh, symbols of everyday working life lean up against ancient deities forming the sacred ground from which these songs arise. Sacred Ground spans a wide range of sacred songs, from Kahlil's praise to Allah ("Mystic Oceans") to Reagon's songsermon ("Sing Oh Barren One")-based on an Isaiah text-to a fairly straightforward arrangement of the traditional African-American song, "Balm in Gilead."
Sacred Ground includes thick, almost opaque vocal arrangements that have become more common in recent Sweet Honey releases. Reagon's opening song, "I Remember, I Believe," starts the listener out right in the midst of that lush garden. (The sound is just too much for me over the course of an entire recording or concert-like eating a cheese sandwich dipped in cheese fondue.)
I do miss the haunting clarity of Yasmeen Williams' sparse soprano comments, and Evelyn Maria Harris' biting alto-a voice that always made me sit up straight in my chair-and songwriting. These women were part of Sweet Honey when I first saw them live, so perhaps I'm just feeling nostalgic. Maybe the arrangements would have moved in this direction no matter which women were singing in the group.
When I listen to a song like "Can't Hide Sinner," I think of one of Bernice Johnson Reagon's foremothers, Bessie Jones. Reagon learned so much from her, and yet Jones' arrangements of traditional songs were most often quite sparse at the same time as being rhythmically complex. To my ears, that sound carries the text in a way that is more satisfying and also more startling than this overlapping murky world. Fortunately, what cuts through the fog is Reagon's sand-blaster voice, the wake-up growl that carries whole worlds on its back. If you've never heard this mother, historian, composer, storyteller, writer, and spiritual leader sing-now is the time.
All in all, any recording or live concert by the women of Sweet Honey in the Rock is not to be missed. The sheer inspiration and joy that can be found by witnessing the power, beauty, grace, and strength of these women are food for the soul. And just to know that these women's voices will be with us on the battlefield is enough to keep me going on another day.
MARY PREUS is a singer, song leader, and voice teacher living in Minneapolis. She is a co-founder of the global worship music group Bread For the Journey.