From the five strong black women who make up Sweet Honey in the Rock come a thousand songs of struggle, love and dreaming. The voices, each distinct and distinguished in the long a capella tradition of black music, are taut, colorful threads harmonically woven into a larger-than-life aural tapestry that tells many stories at once.
Growing out of a long-ago workshop at the D.C. Black Repertory Theatre Company, Sweet Honey in the Rock is now approaching its 10th year of social and musical activism. Tonight at 9, Channel 26 presents "Gotta Make This Journey," an entrancing hour-long documentary on the group produced by Michelle Parkerson and directed by Joseph Camp. The documentary, which is the first production of the new Independent Minority Producers Laboratory at Channel 26, is a long-overdue appreciation of one of Washington's cultural jewels. Parkerson, a poet and filmmaker who has followed the group for many years, captures the grace and spirit that makes Sweet Honey something special.
Sweet Honey's humanist, socially conscious music is rooted in the civil rights movement of the '60s. It extends back to slave-era churches and reaches forward to embrace the newer struggles of feminism, ecology and nuclear sanity without abandoning the central issue of black freedom. There are echoes of gospel and the blues, one the upbeat and the other the downbeat exposition of the same experience. There are work songs and field hollers, street corner harmonies and amen corner moans.
"Journey" splits its time between footage from the group's Ninth Anniversary concert at Gallaudet College and interviews with the group and others, including appraisals from Pete Seeger, Angela Davis and Holly Near. There's also a marvelous passage with signer-for-the-deaf Shirley Childress Johnson, the unnofficial but eloquent sixth member of Sweet Honey, whose presence is indicative of the group's all-encompassing embrace.
The interviews emphasize the individuality of the five group members--Bernice Johnson Reagon, Ysaye Barnwell, Evelyn Harris, Yasmeen Williams and young Aisha Kahlil, the newest addition to Sweet Honey. Reagon, Sweet Honey's artistic director, traces her own roots to the early stages of the civil rights movement, when she was a founding member of the vanguard Freedom Singers (she is now director of the Program in Black Culture at the Smithsonian). One senses in Sweet Honey selfless and fulfilled lives, but as Barnwell says, "It's never been enough to be a solo performer. When all five of our mouths are open and the sounds are coming out, it's a powerful experience."
The Gallaudet concert is exquisitely recorded, so that the group's strengths--multivoiced leads twisting in warm, intricate textures and rhythmically compelling harmonic blends of enormous emotional power--are heard in their most natural state. There are angry songs of politics ("Biko") and solidarity ("Be Aware" and "We Who Believe in Freedom"); impassioned songs of awareness ("No Images," performed with the slow, stark, pavanne-like beauty), and boisterous affirmations of love (June Jordan's "Seven Day Kiss").
The concert finale, "Study War No More," extends Sweet Honey's congregational energy to the audience, which sings and stands and sways in the warmth of sudden communality. At its best, "Gotta Make This Journey" is very much like Sweet Honey itself, an exuberant expression of the human voice and the human spirit. CAPTION: Picture, Sweet Honey in the Rock. Copyright (c) 1982, Don Vaflades