First Person Singular: Musician Ysaye Barnwell

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My mother had a friend, a colleague; she was a different kind of woman. We're talking 1950s, early '60s, and this woman, when everybody else was trying to press their hair, she was wearing her hair kinky, unpressed, natural -- way before natural was in. It was just horrifying to young black girls. And that woman who didn't care what anybody thought used to have classes on Saturday morning for all the little neighborhood girls to come and learn black history. So I learned whether I wanted to or not. And internalized it. At the same time, I was in a community choir. All we did were Negro spirituals. So I learned a huge amount relating to my culture when I was in junior high school. I must have been putting it all together, but I don't remember doing that, consciously.

I know that in college, though, when I began to listen to people like Odetta and Nina Simone, I was hearing this loaded music. You know, hearing Odetta sing these work songs and these spirituals, part of this political song thing. Then there was Peter, Paul and Mary, and Dylan -- all kind of saying something, using music like that.

Things just came together for me in Sweet Honey, with bringing back the music from my childhood and having a platform where I could be involved. With Sweet Honey, it's always been this involvement -- this need, this desire to use the music to document what's happening; to inspire people, motivate people, encourage people, affirm people -- that's what we do.

For me, seeing adults just open up singing, as part of a community, is really pretty powerful. I did a workshop and a woman came back and said, "After I took your workshop, I learned how to swim." It changes people in some deep ways.

In a traditional African worldview, music is what you do to survive. It's how you document who you are, what you do, what's happening in your community, in your life. Singing is such a part of the community and the tradition that everybody does it. At Sweet Honey, we're five women in an ensemble, and we don't have a conductor. So everything is call and response. Which means you have to listen in a very different kind of way. It's not about singing so loud that your voice can be heard. It's about hearing how things come together -- and being in the mix.

Interview KK Ottesen

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