Review: Sweet Honey in the Rock (2002)

Completed as a reviewing assignment while studying away at the Trinity/La MaMa Performing Arts Program in New York City in 2002

This show was so rich, the group of performers so solid as a presenting unit that it seemed almost impossible to single out one performer, or to give more attention to one than others. Each performer for me lent something special to the evening and stood out to me in moving and beautiful ways. But letting my own personal interests and aesthetics run rampant on my perspective for a while, I was able to single out Nitanju Bolade Casel as one performer who truly drew me in and held my attention with her presence and her voice.

In the first half of the concert, Casel was dressed in a long green robe, fringed with gold, and wore a matching headdress. She consistently sat in the right half of the stage and performed from that hemisphere. There was no official program, so I cannot be sure of the songs, but the first song that Casel performed as the leader was about the third in the program. Her voice was clear and strong, though not tremendously big, and featured little to no vibrato. Her movements toward the beginning of the song were small, understated, tremendously refined, deliberate, graceful – indeed, a little bit like butoh in the organic but stylised way she executed them.

Within this spiritual, she demonstrated an outstanding and riveting command of jazz improvisational style. She commanded the audience’s attention and awe as she located her voice throughout her mezzo range, accenting and harmonising with the main structure of the song. Her vocal agility was astonishing. She appeared to the audience as uncompromisingly present and invested in the mood and musicality of the song, thoroughly in tune with and master of her own musicality, permitting this energy of the song – what seemed like the interminable spirit of the song – to speak and sing through her.

The piece evolved into something much greater – as did other choice Sweet Honey in the Rock songs that evening. Casel, and her fellow sweet Honey performers, rose to their feet, and Casel commanded downstage right, singing emphatically and overwhelmingly for peace. It seemed that for some moments, the audience did not absorb the full context of her message, perhaps applying it only to the context of spiritual individual peace. Casel called on the audience to punctuate her calls by chanting the word “peace”, and initially people said it quietly, perhaps peacefully. But as her passion and conviction escalated – at times seeming to possess her body and inspire spasmodic movements throughout her, the ripples of which would seem to move her hands out and up – her message grew more and more contemporary and political. She challenged the audience to demand peace, not war. The message seemed to come suddenly and register and resonate immediately, for there was a kinaesthetic response in the audience. There seemed to be a swell of energy in the room and suddenly a loud and resounding chant for peace rumbling from the auditorium. Casel did not end her stirring performance there, summoning the audience to their feet, commanding them to clap and to listen to the spirit of the song, which seemed to spill out from the stage into the Carnegie Hall auditorium. By the time the song ended, most of the auditorium was on its feet, and clapping not only in appreciation for her performance, but in solidarity with the message she undoubtedly so deeply felt.

In moments when Casel was not the lead singer, her movements continued to be deliberate, slow, at times hypnotic. She seemed to exude grace, centeredness, and seemed to be a living vessel for what we might call God. There was a deep spirituality and refinement to her every gesture, with her hands seeming to tell a story. In Broken Word, telling of mothers and children, she performed several movements like cupping her hands over where a pregnant belly might reach, and spreading her arms wide very slowly as Bernice Reagon spoke of flying. The next song in which she lead however, one which seemed to be an arrangement of an original African piece, saw these movements and understated intensity being the vehicle for her power and command.

She sat for this number, stately, almost like an African queen or priestess. The chant was named sounded something like “Denko”. She played a large percussive instrument, which I assume to be one indigenous to an African culture. Casel lead this piece, and demonstrated inestimable vocal stamina. At several moments, she would hold a note far beyond what would seem to be the range of a normal breath, to the point where I was holding my breath, mesmerised, but had to take several within her long held note. The entire group, Casel included, changed the timbre of their voices and the way in which they produced their sound in a way that was truly astonishing. Their voices became more reedy, seeming to register most in their throats, with absolutely no vibrato or traces of Western vocal technique. Despite this, their ability to throw their voices was unchanged.

The most notable and memorable song in which Casel lead was their rendition of We Shall not be Moved. She stood downstage right, earthy, stately and regal like an African queen or priestess. Earlier, Reagon had spoken of us embodying light, and letting our lights shine through without any inhibition or fear, shining out from within us and reorganising the molecules around us. Casel seemed an embodiment of all Reagon had described. The words of that stirring spiritual seemed all the more forceful, inescapably poignant and profoundly moving by the sheer intensity of her performance. She moved little, her gestures small when she gestured at all, but the intensity, focus and commitment in her voice, and emanating from her presence on stage, was palpable. She brought the entire audience to their feet, calling them to speak with conviction that they would not be moved, and once again there was that sense of an energy rippling through the audience, reaching up to Casel, and being re-transmitted to the audience through her voice and presence.

It was Casel’s irrefutable and unforgettable conclusion to the piece that stands out most clearly in my mind. It has left me with an image of a strong, black woman, the kind of woman who must have somehow survived the atrocities of slavery and misogyny in America during the time of slavery and after; a woman who vowed to stand her ground and never surrender her dignity. On the final phrase and reiteration of “we shall not be moved”, Casel stood absolutely still and strong, profoundly grounded and immovable. She brought her right hand across to her heart, palm down and hand outstretched. On the final word of the song, declaring undeniably that she would not be moved, she brought her hand slowly and deliberately down across her body, cutting through the air like a knife, and ending firmly and solidly beside her right hip. It seemed everyone in the audience absorbed the finality and power of this final gesture, and the applause and cheers from the audience were deafening.

Casel, and the entire group of Sweet Honey in the Rock, combine brilliance, intelligence, musicality, spirituality, talent and the strength of their convictions into a performance, presence, and body of musical work which is unforgettable and unique. The entire experience of listening to them, singing with them and being inspired by them was truly beyond words in many ways, and I look forward to one day seeing them again – or at least enjoying their albums in the mean time!

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