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WITH HONEY, SOME STING // All-women's group has biting message

There's this image from the Bible. It's about a land so rich and fertile that when a rock was cracked open, honey flowed from it. In 1974, Bernice Johnson Reagon formed an a cappella singing group and turned to this image for a name: Sweet Honey in the Rock. It remains an apt metaphor for the group today: six African-American women representing strength and sweetness through music. Washington-based Sweet Honey in the Rock roots through the attic of the black musical expression - African tribal songs, field hollers, spirituals, blues, jazz, even rap - and creates a highly personal statement that is at once traditional and innovative. The lush harmonies and soulful tunes are laced with lyrics that address the ills of racism, sexism, militarism and other negative "isms."

Yet Sweet Honey does not only make protest music. "For all that we sing about, the only thing we sing about is love," Reagon once said.

Backed only by African percussion, the women interlock voices into

harmonies, sometimes as wistful as a cloud, other times biting and abrasive. Reagon's rich contralto struts proudly over it all. The Sweet Honey sound is joyously eclectic, but focused.

"I think it all comes out of our experience," said Sweet Honey member Aisha Kahill in a recent phone interview. "We are African-American women who have all had experiences through this lifetime and through blood that lives in us back to African times, the music that comes from our ancestors. Each and every person brings something different to the group. It's spontaneous. Some of us are more into spirituals, others more versed in African music, others in

improvisation, and it all comes together very naturally."

A Sweet Honey concert merges the music and the message into a communal experience between performers and audience. "It weaves together to create an impression in the hearts of the people," Kahill says. "Some people resist joining in at first, but get swept over by it."

Novelist Alice Walker once said of Sweet Honey's music, "What

ASweet Honey concert merges the music and the message into a communal

experience between performers and audience.

most appeals to me is that there is no separation between the spiritual and political."

Hence, Ode to the International Debt is a pensive gospel hymn that condemns U.S. military aid overseas. Many of Sweet Honey's songs are built on this kind of stylistic tension.

Not surprisingly, Sweet Honey's uncompromising message has limited its commercial prospects. The music industry is a mite wary of such bold statements. "Our message has hampered us in that respect," Kahill says. "There's been some a cappella groups that have come after us that have become quite significant commercially. Some people are intimidated by the message that we bring."

Sweet Honey in the Rock will keep fighting the fight, though.

Reagon's daughter Toshi spoke of her mother in the Washington Post: "She sometimes gets tired during her mission, but I don't think she ever gets tired of her mission."

AT A GLANCE Sweet Honey in the Rock at the Bayfront's Mahaffey Theater at 7:30 p.m. Monday. Tickets are $10 (plus service charge), available through Ticketmaster or the Bayfront box office.