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Last modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sweet Honey will kick off the IU Summer Music Festival

May 27, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Grammy Award-winning a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey In The Rock kicks off the 2008 Indiana University Summer Music Festival with its African American vocal repertoire and performance style on June 15 at 8 p.m. in the Musical Arts Center (MAC).

Sweet Honey In The Rock

Sweet Honey In The Rock

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The group will fill the MAC with its unique sound rooted in gospel, blues, jazz improvisation and traditional African music. Sweet Honey's collective voice, occasionally accompanied by hand percussion instruments, produces a sound filled with soulful harmonies and intricate rhythms. The legendary sextet has sung about hope and social justice for 35 years throughout the United States and around the world.

"The first time I had the opportunity to hear Sweet Honey In The Rock, with its founder Bernice Reagon, I was mesmerized by the spirited presentation of these beautiful women who sang with such rhythmic precision, complex harmonies, limitless energy and soulful voices," said Marietta Simpson, associate professor in the IU Jacobs School of Music. "I am so excited that they will be a part of the IU Summer Music Festival. The rich tapestry of sound created by these master vocalists will stay in the hearts and minds of the audience for many years to come."

Founded by Reagon (with Carol Maillard, Louise Robinson and Mie) in 1973, the group includes Robinson and Maillard, along with Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil and Shirley Childress Saxton. Sweet Honey In The Rock has been a vital and innovative presence in the music culture of Washington, D.C., and in communities around the world. The Grammy Award-winning ensemble is rooted in a deeply held commitment to create music out of the rich textures of African American legacy and traditions.

Reagon was the vocal director of the Black Repertory Theater Company in Washington, D.C. She had been singing since her childhood, in no small part due to the fact that her father was a Baptist minister in the rural town of Albany, Ga. She was attending Albany State College, singing in the choir and studying Italian arias and German lieder as a contralto soloist, when the first march of the movement, which became known as the Albany Movement, occurred in December 1961. In jail, she discovered the spirit-sustaining power of song and became a leader of the Civil Rights Movement, ultimately becoming a member of the original Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers.

As a Freedom Singer, she traveled the country, teaching the songs of the movement and also songs learned from the churches of her youth, which so often dealt with the subject of freedom denied. With her background, it was no surprise that she formed Sweet Honey to continue that ongoing inspirational work, with members of her workshop at the Repertory Theater Company, in 1973.

Sweet Honey in the Rock

The first song that the original group learned was Sweet Honey In The Rock, a song from her youth based on a religious parable. It was felt that the image was a suitable metaphor for African American women -- strong as a rock, sweet as honey. In the spring of l975, Sweet Honey was performing at the Folk Festival at the University of Chicago when they were offered, and agreed to, a record for Flying Fish Records.

The women who comprise Sweet Honey are more than entertainers. They are a quintet of artists dedicated to preserving and celebrating African American culture and singing traditions. They are poets and activists who cannot remain silent on the most pressing contemporary issues. And it is the activist's fervor and sense of urgency that fuels their sometimes tender and often explosive musical drive.

Tickets are $20 for general admission and $10 for students and are available at the MAC Box Office (info: 812-855-7433), online at, or through Ticketmaster at 812-333-9955. A Festival Pass, discounted by more than 50 percent, is offered to the general public (with further reductions for any full-time students). Tickets and Festival Passes are available now. The Musical Arts Center Box Office is located on Jordan Avenue between Third and Seventh Streets, and is open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.


Ysaye M. Barnwell
Ysaye M. Barnwell, is a native New Yorker now living in Washington, D.C., where she has performed with the internationally acclaimed a cappella quintet Sweet Honey In The Rock since 1979. She appears as a vocalist and/or instrumentalist on more than 25 recordings with Sweet Honey and other artists. Barnwell spends much of her time off stage as a master teacher and clinician in cultural performance theory and voice production. Her workshop, "BUILDING A VOCAL COMMUNITY: Singing In The African American Tradition," has been conducted all over the United States, Great Britain and Australia, making her work in the field a real source of inspiration for her performances on stage. At age 2, she began studying the violin, which formed the foundation of her musical career. Barnwell holds a bachelor and master of science degree in speech pathology and a Ph.D in cranio-facial studies, as well as a the master of science in public health. She is a commissioned composer and arranger who has worked on numerous and varied dance, choral, film, video, theater and recording projects. In addition to these endeavors, she is an actress whose credits include voice-over narrations and appearances on both television and big screen film and video. She has authored two children's books, and she is the featured storyteller/singer on her release "UM HMM a feast of African American stories, poems, and songs for young audiences."

Nitanju Bolade Casel
Nitanju Bolade Casel first started with Sweet Honey after four years of studying, performing and cultural organizing in Dakar, Senegal, where she was co-founder of Artistes des Echanges Africaines (ADEA). Dedicated to the exchange of ideas and services between African of the diaspora, ADEA worked in alliance with local artists, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Theatre Daniel Sorano, the University of Dakar, Air Afrique radio (O.R.T.S.) and television programming, the Schomberg Center for Research and Development, and the late Ewart Guinier, of Harvard University. Casel has brought the improvisational rhythms of hip-hop and jazz to Sweet Honey In The Rock's palette since her arrival in 1985. She is currently co-director, with her sister Aisha Kahlil, of First World Productions, a cultural and educational organization in the performance arts. Casel made her film debut appearance in Beloved, directed by Jonathan Demme. Finally, Casel produced Sweet Honey's most recent album, "EXPERIENCE...101."

Aisha Kahlil
Aisha Kahlil joined the group in 1981. As an experienced jazz vocalist and African dance and song artist, she has moved Sweet Honey In The Rock into new territory of improvisation. She is Sweet Honey In The Rock's strongest blues singer. In 1994, CASA (Contemporary A Cappella Society of America) named Kahlil as best soloist in a cappella music for her performance of See See Rider and Fulani Chant. Some of the group's most innovative and experimental work occurs in the performance of her compositions, including Wodaabe Nights and Fulani Chant. Wodaabe Nights was included in the sound score for the 1998 PBS film series Africans in America, produced by WGBH-TV. Her composition Fulani Chant was included in the Climb Against the Odds benefit recording for Breast Cancer Funds and the film score for Down in the Delta, directed by Maya Angelou. Recently added to her acting credits is her debut appearance in Beloved, directed by Jonathan Demme. Kahlil composed the closing song for the American Bible Society video featuring Sweet Honey In The Rock. She also composed and performed original music for the film Freedom Song starring Danny Glover and directed by Phil Robinson with music by Sweet Honey In The Rock and James Horner, and appeared with Sweet Honey In The Rock as guest artist on the TNT special A Tribute to Joni Mitchell. She is currently at work on a recording project featuring her original compositions and arrangements.

Carol Maillard
Carol Maillard was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa., and attended Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., where she studied violin and theater. She began her performance career at the Black Repertory Theatre as a member of the professional company. Maillard has worked extensively both on and off Broadway, in many Meet the Artists, national and international tours, on TV and in film. She has produced, written and recorded with Sweet Honey In The Rock and other well known artists. Her arrangement of Motherless Child is featured in the film The Visit and the documentary film on Dorothy Height, We Are Not Vanishing. She is a published writer and lives in New York City with her son, Jordan. She is a founding member of Sweet Honey In The Rock.

Louise Robinson
Louise Robinson is a native New Yorker who began her relationship with music in the children's choir at church. She went on to play the accordion and concert bass, later joining the all city orchestra and the citywide chorus. She studied music while attending the High School of Music and Art in New York City. She graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a bachelor's of fine arts. Robinson's first professional job was with the Arena Stage's company, Living Stage. She then moved on to join Robert Hook's newly formed acting ensemble at the D.C. Black Repertory Company. It was there that Robinson, along with Mie, Carol Maillard and Bernice Reagon, formed the a cappella quartet, Sweet Honey In The Rock. Robinson moved back to New York several years later to resume her acting career and performed both on and off-Broadway in such productions as Reggae, Tintypes, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road, Ain't Misbehavin' and Little Shop of Horrors.

Shirley Childress Saxton
Shirley Childress Saxton is a veteran professional sign language interpreter, having learned American Sign Language from her deaf parents. She has 25 years of experience providing sign interpreting services in a wide range of life situations. Saxton conducts master workshops on sign interpreting music. She holds a bachelor's degree in deaf education and is a certified member of the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf Inc., who published a tribute to her in an article titled Shirley Childress Johnson, The Mother of Songs Sung in ASL. She has been recognized for her interpreting work and services to the community by awards from deaf advocacy organizations including Women Unlimited, Deafpride Inc. and the Silent Mission at Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. She has authored three writings on her experiences as a child of deaf adults and her work as a sign language interpreter can be found in many publications.