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Sweet Honey in the Rock remains a powerhouse vocal ensemble

BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Sweet Honey in the Rock, a phrase taken from the final verse of Psalm 81, might seem like a surprising name for a touring vocal ensemble.

But the poetic, alluring appellation seems entirely fitting for the five-woman, African-American group, which has weathered the vicissitudes of tastes and remains as popular today as was when it was founded in 1973.

‘Celebrating the Holydays’— Sweet Honey in the Rock

When: 3 p.m. Dec. 7

Where: Symphony Center Presents, Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $25-$75

Info: (312) 294-3000; cso.org

“I just think Sweet Honey is an amazing, lightning-rod energy on this planet and that everybody should know about the group,” said founding member Carol Maillard. “And that has been part of my mission being with the group – to get it to as many people as possible.”

The ensemble, which last appeared as part of the Symphony Center Presents series in 2008 and 2009, returns Dec. 7 to Orchestra Hall to present a multicultural holiday concert titled “Celebrating the Holydays.”

Carol Maillard | PHOTO COURTESY JAHSE
Carol Maillard | PHOTO COURTESY JAHSE

The ever-changing program, which the group developed five years ago, draws on the musical traditions surrounding such end-of-the-year seasonal and religious celebrations as Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the winter solstice.

Among the selections to be featured include “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “This Little Light of Mine,” and it would not be surprising if such Sweet Honey stalwarts as “We Are,” “Let There Be Peace” and “Chinese Proverb” pop up as well.

“The time is a holy time for many people, and some cultures don’t say ‘the holidays,’”Maillard said. “So, we had the great idea that they’re holy days, so let’s just call them the ‘holydays.’ That’s where the word (‘holiday’) comes from anyway. I think holydays is more descriptive.”

Because Sweet Honey, which primarily performs in concert halls and performing arts centers, draws on a range of musical styles, including jazz, folk, blues and even rap, it does fit easily into any one classification.

“This is the ‘outside-the-box’ category,’ and we’ve always been there,” Maillard said. “We sing different kinds of music. We use our voices. We talk about our experiences being in this country, being in the world, being women, being of African descent. We just are who we are.”

During its 41-year history, the group has fluctuated between four and six singers, and new members have periodically rotated in. “Everybody brings something different,” Maillard said, “because we’re never trying to replace what was already there. We’re just trying to bring the new focus in.”

While the group still performs some of its earliest repertory, including “Dream Variations,” a 1974 selection based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, it constantly integrates new songs and fresh arrangements into its programs, the latter done by its own members.

What has not changed is the group’s mission to educate, entertain and empower. Maillard said Sweet Honey always wants audiences to learn something from its concerts, such as a glimpse of American history from an African-American point of view.

But it’s always education done in the spirit of fun. “It’s not enough to just shove information at people through music or introducing a song,” Maillard said. “People want to be engaged in a concert.”

Sweet Honey’s final and perhaps most important goal, and the one that sets it apart from most other touring groups, is empowerment, which can mean something a little different to everyone in its audiences.

“Empowering is just letting people know that anybody can write a song,” Maillard said. “You can raise your voice. You write a petition. You can call a Congressperson. You can show up at a rally. You can support people by volunteering. You can give a smile to a person on the street.

“There are so many different ways you can empower and enliven people from the inside out, and I think those experiences stay with you.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.