Sweet Honey in the Rock stays topical

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GREAT BARRINGTON — "In Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1st, 1921, throughout the streets of Greenwood, the killing had begun."

The harmony that opens Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Oh, Sankofa," immediately presents the discord of the Tulsa Race Riot, one of the country's most horrific and overlooked events. Targeting Tulsa's thriving, and predominantly black, Greenwood district (some called it "Black Wall Street"), white mobs looted, burned and committed various acts of violence across 35 city blocks. A day after the riot began, it stopped. Some death toll estimates are in the hundreds, and thousands were left homeless. Yet, blacks rebuilt the community, inspiring Sweet Honey in the Rock to use a word with West African roots in the song's title.

"'Sankofa' is expressed in the Akan language as 'se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki.' Literally translated, this means 'it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot,'" the University of Illinois-Springfield African-American Studies department explains on its website.

Since 1973, it could be said that Sweet Honey in the Rock has been practicing sankofa with its Grammy-nominated a cappella tunes, frequently revisiting African American history to address issues in the country today.

"One of the things that Sweet Honey does so beautifully is [we] can take many of the songs that we have recorded over these 45 years and come up with a conversation that addresses something that might be contemporary," original member Carol Maillard told The Eagle during a Wednesday phone interview.

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Maillard was in the midst of the performance ensemble's 45th anniversary tour. On Saturday, Aug. 3, the group will stop in Great Barrington for a show at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. Audience members won't just hear songs that tell stories about the distant past. In "Second Line Blues," the ensemble speaks the names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray, among others whose deaths have been at the forefront of national conversations about racial profiling, police brutality and gun violence.

"I guess it's another form of genocide, just these young men in our African American community that are being gunned down, women and men being gunned down, and then you look at Sandy Hook, these poor little kids," Maillard said, referring to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Both "Second Line Blues" and "Oh, Sankofa" are on the group's latest album, 2016's "#LoveinEvolution." Its Twitter-friendly title advertises Sweet Honey in the Rock's ability to adapt over the years to cultural changes; its lineup has endured some shifts, too. The current ensemble includes Maillard, fellow founding member Louise Robinson, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil and bassist Romeir Mendez. (An American Sign Language interpreter is also at every show.)

The original ensemble was born from DC Black Repertory Company. Maillard and the others were actors, and Bernice Johnson Reagon was their vocal director. In 1973, they started belting songs they knew from Reagon's classes, church and other experiences, nailing the harmonies. One of the tunes gave the group its name, now a legendary one in the a cappella world.

"We weren't really looking to be a singing group," Maillard said. "We were just looking to express our creativity another way."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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