Sweet Honey in the Rock is a vocal group of African American women based in Washington that was founded in 1973 by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon at the D.C. Black Repertory Theater Company. In the years since the group was formed, members have come and gone, and even Dr. Johnson Reagon retired a few years ago.
However, despite the changes in voices over time, the sounds and attitudes that have made the group what it is, has remained constant throughout. Armed with only their voices and a few hand percussion instruments traditionally used by African women, Sweet Honey in the Rock is well prepared to take your breath away.
For this recording, the group is comprised of Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Aisha Kahlil, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Carol Lynn Maillard, Louise Robinson, Arnaé, and Shirley Childress Saxton. Notably, Robinson and Maillard are original members, and Childress Saxton is the current sign language interpreter. That's right; every song the group performs vocally is also performed with sign language.
Performance is the key word with Sweet Honey in the Rock. While their albums always sound exquisite (Experience…101 is no exception), their music is intended to be a performance. The way Experience…101 was recorded reflects that intent. Rather than blending all of the vocal tracks together into a stereo sound, individual voices are at times shifted more to the right or left speakers, giving the listener the sense of hearing them as though they were performed in a room without artificial amplification so that the sounds are coming from the direction of each singer in relation to the listener. All that are missing are the movements of the singer's bodies and the sign language.
Experience…101 is intended to be an album of children's music, but unlike those with over-the-top cheesy lyrics and goofy instrumentation, this one is likely to be appreciated by adults, as well. The 18 tracks on the recording are musical responses to questions about the adult world as posed by children ages nine through twelve. Topics addressed include the importance of education, of taking care of the world around you, and of listening to the wisdom of those who came before you. At times the songs can feel a little, well, preachy, but the intent seems genuine, and the music is so beautiful that one can forgive them for a little pulpit pounding.
While the album as a whole is above average, there are a few tracks that stand out to me. The running bass line and tight treble harmonies on "When I Grow Up" exemplify two of my favorite aspects of the Sweet Honey in the Rock sound. "In the Middle of the Night" is like curling up under your favorite blanket and being held by someone you love and trust, if that sort of thing can be distilled into a simple song. "Member of the World Community" offers an interesting new way of singing the ABC's.
Experience…101 has a little bit of something for everyone, drawing from diverse musical styles that range from folk to gospel to jazz and blues, with a little bit of swingin' rock 'n roll thrown in for good measure. Throughout, Sweet Honey in the Rock maintains the solid vocals and arrangements that makes the group such a pleasure to listen to. Fans of a cappella music should be pleased to have another fine album to add to their collections.