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All-woman, Black a cappella ensemble celebrates its 40th year

caines | 1/24/2013, 4:30 a.m.

Music has always been an integral part of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon's life. But then so has civil rights activism, evidenced by her being expelled from Albany State College shortly after her matriculation there in 1959 because of her participation in the movement and then her decision to join The Freedom Singers in the early 60s a group organized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]. But for those who remember and love the folk and gospel music that buoyed the civil rights movement, 70, merits special esteem. She is the founder of the all-woman, Black a cappella ensemble, Sweet Honey in the Rock. In an interview with her several years ago, she emphasized the importance and continued relevance of the Black sacred music tradition and talked about how the group was first formed and named. While teaching a voice workshop in Washington, D.C. in 1973, she and three other women were working on a song based on Psalm 81:16. She recalls that their voices blended so perfectly that they could feel the power of the song and its message. Sweet Honey in the Rock was born and began to travel the world, sharing music that addresses the vicissitudes of life: racism, women's issues, the environment, immigration injustice and politicians' greed and their lack of compassion for citizens in need. When the group takes to the stage in South Florida next Friday, Jan. 25th at the Miramar Cultural Center, Reagon will not be there. She stopped touring with the group in 2004, retiring so that she could focus on other projects related to Black oral history, performance and protest traditions. But her spirit and many of the songs that she either wrote or arranged remain and are foundational to the ensembles success. To describe their sound, one could say that Sweet Honey in the Rock, now a five-part harmony ensemble with a sixth member who signs for the hearing impaired, is a combination of contemporary rhythms and narratives with a musical style that comes from the gospel music, spirituals and hymns of the Black church. And while the Grammy Award-winning group has changed members several times during its 40-year history, one thing has remained constant: the powerful message of their music. Sweet Honey in the Rock performs at the Miramar Cultural Center Friday, Jan. 25 at 8 p.m. By D. Kevin McNeir kmcneir@miamitimesonline.com