Grammy-winning a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock lived up to its name in a recent Los Angeles performance, captivating a diverse audience of veteran fans as well as newcomers at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. Opening with “I Remember, I Believe,” a song of hope written by the group’s now retired founder, Bernice Johnson Reagon, the group set the stage for an unforgettable evening of song, sung pure and simple. A cappela. You get no acrobatics, booming instruments or other trumped up antics with this group, but, what you do get is well worth your ticket price. This is a concert like no other. The six ladies dressed in brightly-colored traditional African costume graced the stage with their presence, a chair for each and in front of each chair, small hand-held percussion instruments played at various times throughout the performance. The concert was a benefit for the Santa Monica-based Liberty Hill Foundation, one of the nation’s leading social change foundations. Always powerful and positive, Sweet Honey in the Rock sings of social justice and other themes meant to provide listening pleasure as well as empowering people with songs of hope such as “I Remember, I Believe” written after watching news reports of Hurricane Katrina. The song speaks of looking back and looking around to find strength and encouragement in everything in life’s trying times. From original tunes like “Would I Harbor You?” a song about helping people and showing compassion regardless of people’s situation, to “Run” relating the plight of domestic violence victims. The group also added its special flavor to well-known songs including Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” the old Negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” and “Precious Memories.” The crowd was on its feet, clapping and shouting as if they were at a Sunday morning church service when the group sang the gospel standard “Let Us All Go Back to the Old Landmark.” With voices so sweetly tuned expressing a range of emotions and sounds from Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s bass to African chants provided by sisters Nitanju Bolade Casel and Aisha Kahlil, from Mali, West Africa. Arnae, the newest member, Carol Lynn Maillard, a returning original member and Louise Robinson, all add their unique sounds to make Sweet Honey in the Rock the best ensemble of its kind. With the 2004 retirement of Reagon, who started the group in 1973, many long-time fans wondered what would become of the ensemble. Well, wonder no more. Although, Reagon’s presence is definitely missing from the group and the sound was at times muffled, making it hard to understand the words (maybe a screen to display lyrics would be helpful) being sung, the new Sweet Honey in the Rock proved they could and would carry on the legacy of a 30-year tradition.
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