by Steve Pick
It ain't easy to put an out of body experience into words, but here goes nothing. Listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock, even without taking into consideration any of the words they are singing, is like an instant transport into the mind of a zen buddhist after decades of introspective meditation. It will wash all this beauty right through your skin, into your soul. It raises the best kind of goosebumps, the ones that shimmer their way through your heart, your brain, your muscles and limbs. It is, in short, perfection.
At the time of Twenty-five, there had been a Sweet Honey in the Rock for 25 years, hence the album title. The five women in the group in 1998 had been together for several years at this point, but many others had come and gone over the years. I've seen Sweet Honey some 14 times since 1985, but this line-up is what I consider to be the definitive one - founder Bernice Johnson Reagon, Carol Maillard, Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel, and the incomparable Ysaye Maria Barnwell.
I can't even imagine how these women worked up the songs they sang. Whether an original from one of the members, a spiritual, blues, or reggae song, or a traditional African chant, everything they touched was turned into something magical and beyond the ordinary. So, you bring in a song to the group, and somehow or another, they come up with harmonies, rhythmic variations, counterpoint, and emotional resonance far beyond the obvious. This was an ensemble of equals where nobody was less than a musical genius.
Twenty-five isn't necessarily my favorite Sweet Honey album (gotta go with In This Land from 1992), it is a perfectly representative one. Opening with a thrill ride of a canon, "We Are the Ones We've Been Waiting For," Sweet Honey move so far beyond the obvious intent of energizing the audience to make the change we seek in the world. It's all those voices wrapping around those simple words, over and over again, in feats of astounding invention and intriguing chords and rhythms, taking us right out of the limits we think might be up against us. Heck, if this song could have been playing in the Senate while they were debating health care, that whole mess might have been a heck of a lot more inspired.
There is the thrilling "Chant," in which the members of Sweet Honey demonstrate their ability to take something without words and make it as meaningful, as beautiful, as mesmerizing as anything you've ever heard. There is Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," with its dichotomy of accepting fate vs. longing for freedom - when Kahlil starts her trumpet imitations for the last minute and a half or so, one can almost believe this battle to be won. There's the spiritual lament of "Motherless Chil'," the interior questioning of "Greed (A Sermonette)," the thrilling love songs "Sometime" (with Reagon's earth-shattering drawn-out syllables on the word "forever" which, as astounding as it is on record, only hints at what she did with this when she sang it live) and "Forever Love," one of the most intricately arranged pieces on an album of intricately arranged pieces.
Every member of Sweet Honey at this time had an established personality and role. Reagon, the powerful alto from the Gospel and freedom-song traditions (who had founded the group back in 1973); Maillard, another founding member whose soprano wafted through every song like bright clouds from heaven; Kahlil, the youngest member of the group whose playfulness and interest in popular musics like reggae and hip-hop helped energize Sweet Honey; Casel, whose voice hovered between soprano and alto, and whose emotional fervor was an essential component on so many ensemble pieces and a bolt of fury on the ones she led; and Barnwell, hands down the greatest female bass vocalist in history - she could sound like a bass fiddle, or a drum, or a tuba, or a piano, or an amazingly talented human being.
No other record I loved in 1998 remains quite as enthralling 11 years later as it did at the time (though Neko Case's The Virginian is just as plucky as ever, and Madonna's Ray of Light still gets me excited every time; I guess it was a great year for women). (Another one from my top 10 of that year is gonna represent 1999; I can't figure that one out, except I think it came out as an import the year before it appeared domestically, and thus I get to cheat on my own rules - cool.) I've long held that Sweet Honey in the Rock was (and presumably still is, though I've never seen them after Reagon retired a few years back) one of the five greatest musical artists of our time (along with David Murray, Ornette Coleman, Elvis Costello, and Richard Thompson). This record gives all the evidence you need to see why.