Sweet Honey In The Rock Tributes Odetta, Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba

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Wednesday April 20, 2011


Sweet Honey In The Rock Tributes Odetta, Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba
By: Jim Bessman

They’re the most significant singing group in America, and have been for a long time. But when Sweet Honey In The Rock (SHIR) played Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater last weekend, they broadened their legendary African-American a cappella repertoire with a tribute to the songs of Nina Simone, Odetta and Miriam Makeba—and with the backing of a jazz trio.

“We did some electrified versions of Sweet Honey songs when we performed with Toshi Reagon’s band during our 30th year celebration,” says Sweet Honey’s Ysaye Maria Barnwell, “but this is the first time we’ve really stepped out by choosing and performing solo songs—which is radically different for us.”

But not at all out of place—or much of a challenge—for Barnwell and fellow vocalists Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil, Carol Maillard and Louise Robinson, who along with sign language interpreter Shirley Childress Saxton make up SHIR. Now in its 37th year, the group has carried on the music/social activism tradition set forth by retired founder Bernice Johnson Reagon (Toshi’s mom) with a new show that is really just a natural extension.

“Odetta, Nina and Miriam saved my life at school,” says Barnwell. “When I went to college in upstate New York, there were literally seven black people—students and staff—on campus, and while it wasn’t necessarily racism, people showed a stupidity around black folks. It really plunged me more deeply into my culture, and I tried to look and sound like Odetta!”

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