Sweet Honey Harmonies

CENTER Institute, the first large scale continuing education conference for Unitarian Universalist clergy, took place last week in Pacific Grove, CA. Nearly 400 of us gathered at the Asilomar Conference Center for five days of learning, worshiping, and walking on the beach. Food was great; collegiality was even greater!

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, founding member and lead songwriter of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, offered her seminar on Building the Vocal Community. She writes and sings songs with a purpose: inspiring us to listen to the sounds of nature; assuring us that freedom will unfold in time; filling us with the holy spirit! (Go to http://www.sweethoney.com/ for more info.)

As a long-time fan of Sweet Honey in the Rock, I was eager to attend Ysaye’s seminar, work she has done for 27 years, about 8-10 times per year. She knows a LOT of African-American music history along with the songs. About 40 ministerial colleagues formed a double circle as we sang chants, spirituals, gospel, and justice songs. The circle was for community. Ysaye taught the songs, yes, but we looked into each others’ faces and sang our harmonies with a lot of heart.

The first chant became an intricate blend of several phrases. We chose one line, learned its rhythm and repeated it until all of the text worked together rhythmically: 1) Go down into the market. 2) Mama! 3) I won’t go down to the market, Mama! 4) I just came from the market, Mama, go down! When we added movement and walked around to greet one another, the sound and rhythm grew in intensity. Fantastic!

One side benefit is that the “Barnwellians” were asked to sing at several worship services during the Institute. One song evoked the sound of God, from a tribe that understands that the Rain Forest is God. Another repeated lines that mean, “The works of God can never be destroyed.”

We also sang, in English,
“Tell all my friends that my ship just came sailing in.
It was filled with the Holy Spirit, it was filled with joy divine,
Wouldn’t you like to sail on a ship like mine?”

We learned about quadlibets, in which several related songs are sung in succession or simultaneously—like a modern-day musical mashup. One pure joy was singing along with Ysaye for about 30 minutes as she sang one Civil Rights song after another. We joined in as we learned the tunes.

I plan to bring several of these songs back to Live Oak Church, possibly with the help of Ysaye Barnwell’s instructional CDs, Singing in the African-American Tradition and/or Building the Vocal Community.

One comment

  1. Adriane · February 15, 2011

    Sounds like it was a really moving, musical experience. Thanks for sharing both on your blog and at practice! Thinking of you as you leave today for India! Bon voyage!!! xoxox

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