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Sweet Honey in the Rock celebrates decades of song

Kevin C. Peterson | 3/6/2014, 6 a.m.
The concert on Sunday night at Boston Symphony Hall began with the mellifluous signing of "I’m Going to Stand," which ...

The concert on Sunday night at Boston Symphony Hall began with the mellifluous signing of “I’m Going to Stand,” which is a fitting statement for the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock. The powerfully performing feminist group is celebrating its 40th anniversary in concerts across the U.S.

Sweet Honey has become a national institution not only because of its longevity, but because it has for decades put to soothing tune the importance of black femininity and human rights with precision.

An all-female black group, Sweet Honey is a masterpiece performing ensemble, a vehicle that chronicles the life of the nation from a black women’s perspective. In song, they talk about problems of childhood neglect and spousal abuse. But they also speaks to the high notes of American democracy — the Civil Rights Movement and the 1970s women’s liberation campaigns.

Sweet Honey is a group that is at once cheerful, inspiring and awfully serious — dispatching social wisdom with direct calmness and a caring interest in politics and change.

The group embraces the Civil Rights Movement with a tenacity that is touching and reveals how Sweet Honey is anchored in social protest in the way the Peter Seeger or Joan Baez were — true believers that song could be a prayer and a call to a certain kind of revolution.

Singing to the packed house at the recent Boston Symphony Hall concert were original member Carole Mallaird and Nitanju Bolade Casal, both of whom gave histories of when and how the ensemble was formed in Washington D.C. in 1974.

“Hey Boston — how you doing? We are so happy! It’s been 40 years and we are still here. Thanks to you and your children and your grandchildren,” said Mallaird.

They also reminisced about the many group members over the years — 23 to be exact — and how each was dedicated to commenting on and combating social injustice through music.

Also part of the outstanding performance was Aisha Kahlil, whose singing especially had listeners rollicking, and long-time member, Shirley Childress.

Sweet Honey has remained relevant because they highlight the importance of quality vocal entertainment that avoids so many of themes of current black pop music such as sex, violence and drugs. The group has been focused on expressing that art can touch the soul and teach personal lessons about appropriate moral comportment.

Sweet Honey takes its named from the bible, a passage in Psalms, Chapter 81 that is ultimately triumphalist.

Appropriately, the group has remained enthusiastic about the religious roots of its moniker and its song titles often serve as the testament to this. In Boston, the women belted out one such song, “Jesus is the Answer,” and the response was so much appreciation that the audience demanded an encore.

Backing the magnificent performance was Louise Robinson on bass.