Raise Your Voice With Sweet Honey In The Rock

Sweet Honey In The Rock, an innovative presence in the music culture of Washington D.C. and communities of conscience across the globe, brings songs of hope, love, peace, and resistance to MASS MoCA on Saturday, July 7 at 8 PM.

Founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon, Mie, Carol Maillard, and Louise Robinson in 1973 at the D.C. Black Repertory Theater Company, Sweet Honey In The Rock captures the complex sounds of blues, spirituals, traditional gospel hymns, rap, reggae, African chants, hip hop, ancient lullabies, and jazz improvisation.  “With honey from the rock I will satisfy you” (Psalm 81:16), and Sweet Honey’s music does just that. These African American women are the perfect blend of sweet and strong. Each song reflects their passion for music, their dedication to the Black church, and their involvement in the civil rights movement and struggle for justice. Fort Worth Star Telegram calls Sweet Honey “the gold standard…their voices are all fabulous, and they unite to create a sound so pure, smooth and homogenous that it does not seem humanly possible.”

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Sweet Honey’s Mission

Sweet Honey’s soulful harmonies and intricate rhythms encourage audiences of all ages to open their minds and hearts and think about how they treat each other and the environment in which they live. Harry Belafonte says “art is the conscience of the human soul and artists have the responsibility not only to show life as it is but to show life as it should be.” These women feel empowered to raise their voices against prejudice, and to encourage others to make the world a better place by fighting for equality.

Rosalyn Deshauteurs and Sweet Honey in “Go In Grace”

About the Members

Aisha Kahlil joined Sweet Honey in 1981, bringing to the group power and an unparalleled range in jazz, blues, traditional, and contemporary African vocal techniques. In 1994 she was awarded the title of “Best Soloist” from the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America after the release of See See Rider and Fulani Chant. In 2005, Kahlil was a finalist with her own band, MyKa and the whole World Band, in the annual Battle of the Bands contest, and was a winner in the International Songwriting Competition performance category with her original song, The Jewel Light. She is a co-director of First World Productions, a cultural and educational performance arts organization, and with Sweet Honey member Nitanju Bolade Casel, she wrote the production Bright Moments in Great Black Music. 

Aisha Kahlil

Shirley Childress Saxton is a professional Sign Language interpreter who has become an exemplar for interpreting music through Sign. In honor of her deaf parents, Saxton founded the Herbert and Thomasina Childress Scholarship Fund to reach out to other children of deaf adults. She interpreted with the Mental Health Program for the Deaf at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and with Project Access of Deafpride, Inc. She founded the organization BRIDGES to connect with Black deaf consumers and interpreters, and she was a founding member of Black Deaf Advocates. Saxton has received awards from deaf advocacy organizations, Deafpride, Inc., Women Unlimited, and National R.I.D Interpreters of Color.

Shirley Childress Saxton

Ysaye M. Barnwell is a Speech Pathologist with a Ph.D. from University of Pittsburgh. She taught at the College of Dentistry for over 10 years, and in 1981 she earned a Master of Science in Public Health. Barnell joined Sweet Honey as a singer and Sign Language interpreter, and over the past two decades she has earned a significant reputation as a commissioned composer and arranger, author, master teacher, and choral clinician in African American cultural performance. She founded the workshop Building a Vocal Community – Singing In the African American Tradition, which employs an African world view, and African American history, values, cultural, and vocal traditions to work with and build community among singers and non-singers alike.

Ysaye M. Barnwell

Sweet Honey NOW

Creative in their methods of fusing activism with music, Sweet Honey was honored to accept an invitation from President and Mrs. Barack Obama to give a concert at the White House on February 18, 2009, and in 2010 Sweet Honey released a single CD and video in response to Arizona Law SB-1070 and create a tribute concert called Remembering Nina, Odetta and Miriam Makeba (Our friend Nora Chipaumire will present a work-in-progress dance/theatre piece inspired by Miriam Makeba on August 25.)

Sweet Honey In The Rock performing at the White House

Sweet Honey’s 20th CD release, Experience…101, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2008, and the women were asked to compose new material in celebration of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s 50th anniversary. Most recently, Sweet Honey received Honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from the Chicago Theological Seminary in Chicago. They are the most prestigious recognition by the CTS, and are presented to those whom the CTS believe have, in their work and in their lives, embodied the seminary’s core value of “transformative leadership toward greater justice and mercy in church and society.”

By Hannah Schiff


Posted July 3, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Music, Sweet Honey In The Rock
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Artist Spotlight: Here Lies Love Director Alex Timbers

MASS MoCA Marketing Coordinator Emily Evans sat down with Here Lies Love Director Alex Timbers to find out what it’s like being a director, working with artists like David Byrne, and making theatre at MASS MoCA.

Director Alex Timbers

I was a dance major at Conn College, my mentor being that wonderful dance maker David Dorfman, and I know you’ve co-directed some of his work. How is directing dance different than directing theatre or musicals?

David’s great – I’ve been a dramaturg for a couple of his pieces. I think dance works in a more abstract, less narrative way. There’s a sense of pacing and scale and variety that I think is also true to directing a musical. [With dance] you’re working much more with a sort of principal nature of the elements, because you’re serving a story and emotional palette that is much more visceral and abstract. In a musical, you’re trying to get that richness, but you ultimately have to serve a prescribed script and set of songs.

Do you have a preference, a favorite thing to direct?

I love to direct theatre, and I’ve really enjoyed working on shows like Peter and the Starcatcher and The Pee Wee Herman Show, that are kind of what I like to call “plays plus.” They have all the attributes of a play, a sort of naturalism and an emotional hook, and yet they also have song elements and dance and movement and a certain heightened design. They feel inherently and richly theatrical, instead of the type of play that could take place in a living room or a kitchen. They are sort of epic in scale and yet emotionally more grounded than more traditional or conventional musical theatre.

How did you get into directing? How did you discover you had this passion?

I was in college and I was doing a lot of improv and sketch comedy. I had acted a little bit (just sort of in the way that everyone acts in college or high school) and I got very interested in the mechanics of comedy, so I decided to direct a farce, and then another farce, and I got really into directing. I started running the college theatre company, and then I snuck into graduate school classes at Yale School of Drama and started learning about the management side.

When I graduated, I worked as an intern at Manhattan Theatre Club, and I realized no one ever tells you that in the real world, people don’t hire young directors – it just doesn’t happen. [If you’re young,] no one’s gonna hire you to direct Thornton Wilder or Shakespeare because they’re entrusting you with a lot of money, and they don’t trust you. In film and TV, you’re trying to appeal to young people as often as older people, so it makes sense to let [a young director] be the voice. But in theatre, you’re not going after really young audiences, so why would you ask a young director or playwright? So what I did was create my own opportunities. I created a company – that’s where Les Freres Corbusier started.

How did you get involved with Here Lies Love?

I had done a show for The Public Theater called Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, that was sort of a classic example of the shows I was doing with LFC – sort of about historical figures but done in an irreverent, post modern way. It combined pop and rock music and big visuals. The Public Theatre was also developing Here Lies Love, and the artistic director Oskar Eustis put me in contact with David [Byrne]. I think there were a couple of directors that interviewed for it, but David and I hit it off pretty immediately, and I think the impression I had of what the piece should be in 3 dimensions, more than just an album, was similar to what David always had in mind for it.

Can you tell me what Here Lies Love is about in 4 sentences or less?

Sure. Here Lies Love is a fully immersive club musical that tells the story of Imelda Marcos’ rise and infamous fall. It’s told entirely through song, without dialogue and without seating. It takes place all around you – it’s what I call a sort of 360 degree theatre piece. It refuses to glorify Imelda and is examining the politics of power and the psychology or pathology behind a person that so desperately wanted to be loved and yet was thrown out by her own citizens.

What’s it like working with this particular cast and crew, and with David Byrne and Annie-B Parson?

In terms of the cast (David and the choreographer and the crew), it’s really fantastic, because these are people who I’ve for years looked up to! I had seen Annie-B Parson’s Big Dance Theatre shows for many years.  I’ve been listening to David’s music and reading his writing for years. So to collaborate with these people is phenomenal. And the design team is this great mix of downtown and uptown people – they are downtown theatre artists but they have Broadway experience. There’s a really exciting mix (just as the show is) between a kind of left of center sensibility and a delivery of the great pleasure principles of musical theatre.

How has MASS MoCA and this particular space impacted the development of the piece? Is it different from where you guys have been before?

Absolutely. I’ve been coming to MASS MoCA for about 7 years now, and I’ve always been mesmerized as much by the art at MASS MoCA as by the architectural surroundings of this place. When the idea came up to develop the show outside of New York, one of the questions I had was, “Can we not do it at a place where it will feel like a musical?” (Which it’s not.) So this idea came up to do it at a museum as a sort of art installation. I think that sets up your expectations for the piece better.

I have a long history with Williamstown Theatre Festival, and [artistic director] Jenny Gersten has been an incredible friend and advisor, so the idea of triangulating The Public Theater and WTF and MASS MoCA started to feel like a really exciting convergence of great arts institutions. The thought with the residency at MASS MoCA was that we could really build the piece – it wasn’t that we’d be delivering some sort of finished product, but we would have the space and staff and collaborators here to create a 360 degree art environment.

Every day there have been new songs coming in, we’re changing staging on the fly, and just today before we started talking I saw new choreography for the opening number! We’re assembling it here in a way you couldn’t do with the pressure of New York or you’d go crazy. The space here is unbelievable –  it’s huge! – and there are 2 things we’re examining: how can we make the best possible performance here at MASS MoCA, and how can we honor the spatial limitations Here Lies Love will confront when it eventually moves to New York?

What’s next for Here Lies Love?

After this it will go to The Public Theater in New York, and it starts performances in March 2013 at the Luesther, one of the five theatres of The Public – it’s a downtown space.

That’s exciting.

Yeah, I think it’s pretty cool.

Alex Timbers and David Byrne at opening night of Timbers’ Peter and the Starcatcher

Posted June 18, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, Dance, Music, Theater, Uncategorized, Work-in-progress
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Phyllis Criddle on the Rise

A few months ago, we blogged about of one our best-kept secrets, Phyllis Criddle. Phyllis has worked at the museum for several years now, first as part of the Art Fabrication team and now as the Assistant Manager of Hardware, the MASS MoCA store. But what she’s fast becoming known for are her amazing dresses made of scrap materials such as old MASS MoCA logos, ribbons, pieces of blankets, and most famously, hundreds of wrist bands from the Solid Sound Festival curated by Wilco. Check out her first Wilco dress, modeled by the artist last December:

Since then, Phyllis has created many more pieces out of Solid Sound wristbands. Check them out below.

Last month, Phyllis was invited to be part of the Alchemy Initiative‘s Earth Day Designer Auction, where she had the opportunity to show her patchwork dress made of recycled fabric, clothes, curtains and sheets:

We can’t wait to see what Phyllis does next. In the meantime, check out her website and stay tuned for future blog posts.


Posted May 25, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Secrets of MASS MoCA, Staff, Wilco Solid Sound Festival
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Artist Spotlight: Chatting with Christine Ohlman

From singing on Saturday Night Live to working with some of the greatest artists of our generation, the Beehive Queen Christine Ohlman tells all.

Performing arts intern Melissa interviews Christine Ohlman before her  rock n’ roll-soul concert on Saturday, April 21, at 8 PM in the Club B-10.

You started in the music business young – age 16 if I’m not mistaken – but why did you decide music was the right path for you?

The reason I knew that music was right for me was because it was the most comfortable I had ever felt in my life. Since I was really a small child, I saw other people communicating in that way. So I started to and it wasn’t in my bedroom, not alone, but communicating back and forth with other people. I do consider music to be a very high form of communication, so it was just the place that I always felt the most comfortable, and as I grew up, there became a chance for me to sing with a band, and that’s really how I got into it, as the “chick singer.” As time went on, I began playing guitar and I began writing, and once I began writing there was a lot of empowerment that came with that, and I became a band leader myself. So it was kind of a progression from “chick singer in the band” to the leader of the band, and as B.B King so elegantly put it, I was “paying the cost to be the boss.”

 Did you try other things? Did you go to school?

I was a national merit scholar. I went to Boston University to the school of journalism and I have a degree in journalism. I never used it really until about ten years ago, when I was asked to come onto the staff of the All Music Guide. Also, Boston had this great magazine called the Record Round Up, and I started reviewing for them and then I started writing. Actually it was more like 15 years ago, for the original version of the All Music Guide, which was a big fat print book, not the website like it is now – it was a print, enormous thick book. From then on, I became known as a historian of music and I’ve done a fair amount of writing since then for magazines. That’s how I use my degree, but for years I didn’t use it.

So your nickname, the Beehive Queen… When did it start?

I think when I started teasing my hair. It was probably early 90s. I did it for a photo shoot and I liked it so much and everybody else liked it, and I thought, well maybe I’m on to something. I was really in love with vintage clothes, cocktail dresses, and things like that, so it kind of went along with my style. In later years I dropped so much vintage, like dresses and things, but you know I kept the hair. It’s kind of a lot of vintage but it’s not so retro-retro anymore.

Did someone say, “Well, you’re the Beehive Queen,” or did you kind of make up that nickname yourself?

Ummm… I’m not quite sure. You know a lot of people ask me that. I think someone else suggested that (but I can’t remember who to tell you the truth) and then I liked it so I started using it, and then at some point someone said, “You know if you Google ‘Beehive Queen’ you are by far the number one hit,” and I laughed so much when I heard that, but then I was like, “Okay, well let’s go with it.” It’s kind of cute.

So how did you get started with Saturday Night Live?

Oh, that’s a great story, really a great story. Ummm, G. E. Smith was a friend of mine and we had been in a band together in Connecticut called The Scratch Band, and then the next thing you know, he hooked up with the people on Saturday Night Live as the musical director, and we still stayed in touch. I used to make mix tapes for everyone, and G.E was one of the people that I sent tapes too. Then one day the phone rang and he said, “Hey Chris, its G. E., I have this gig out on Long Island, do you want to do it? It would be two nights,”and I was free so I said yes. So we picked 12 or 14 really pretty obscure songs from those tapes and the next thing I know, he tells me that the gig is with the Saturday Night Live Band, with me as the vocalist! And it’s for the wedding celebration of Lorne Michaels at his estate in the Hamptons. So we did the wedding ([at] which every celebrity in the world at the time was there), and I thought, Well that’s it, that was a great gig, but that’s it.” Well, the next week the show was starting up for the season, and Lorne Michaels kept walking across the studio (which I now know so well) and walked up to the band stage and beckoned G. E. down to the front and said, “Where’s the girl?” And G.E. was like, “What do you mean where’s the girl?”, and Lorne said, “The girl at the wedding,” and G. E. said, “Well she’s not here, it was a one-time thing,” and Lorne goes, “No no, she was great, call her up and tell her to come next week!” So I got on SNL from a wedding gig. So there I am til this day. G.E.’s not there anymore but the band changed very little, and um it’s a wonderful gig, and Lorne has been a prince, you know, forever.

Do you have a favorite moment of being on the show?

Yeah, my favorite moment to this day is the first time we had Paul McCartney on. He had never been on the show and everyone was really excited about having him there and he played a little set at his sound check, he played extra songs, and the late Chris Farley and I were standing there watching him and he started to play Hey Jude, and Chris Farley grabbed me and we waltzed all around the studio and it was just a wonderful moment. We were dancing, everybody was there,it was great. You know it’s very like a family there, so I’m just really grateful to be a part of that family for so many years.

Do you have a favorite artist that you’ve ever worked with?

Honestly I’ve worked with so many. I was lucky enough to sing with Al Green, which was a thrill, and the Bob Dylan thing at Madison Square Garden, because it was the first of its kind ever, where multiple, multiple, multiple artists were gathering to pay tribute to one artist. Also I must say, I am so saddened about this news about Levon Helm. Levon Helm appears On The Deep End with me, and I had not realized his cancer had come back. I’m very, very sorry to hear… One of the great voices of American popular music across the board and one of the deepest. Also an amazing, amazing drummer. I can testify, having been in the studio with him. He recovered and he was singing, and that voice just cannot be denied. I think the blessing in this whole thing was that he was able to sing again.


So your band is called Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez; how did you come up with the Rebel Montez part of it?

We were just trying to think of a name that maybe I could use as sort of a nom de plume or whatever, and first we had Cortez from Cortez the Killer, the Neil Young song, and then it kind of morphed into Montez. We were looking for another word… Maybe I was reading it and I was like, “Oh, how about Rebel?” Anybody who has ever thought of a band name can tell you there’s almost nothing harder to do than think of a band name, it’s ridiculously It was probably a serendipity kind of thing, the day when we put those two words togeher.

I just have one last question for you. You’re playing here Saturday. What should people expect when seeing you live?

One of the things that has always been said about our shows is that we rock really hard but there’s also a sense of continuity to it and a sense of history. I’m a pretty good storyteller, so I’ll tell some stories in-between the songs. The music will rule the day, you know, but we really include a few surprises. The cover tunes that we do are pretty well chosen, and they’re historic, all of them. People have always said that it’s very soulful. [The audience] should expect to see a very deep performance. I’m out there to connect on a deep and visual level.  I’m really excited to meet all of you, and to meet some new friends from the area, and to see some old friends from the area, ’cause we definitely have some. It’s a great area for music, and  have nothing but respect for MASS MoCA and everything that you guys do up there. I’m really honored.

Watch Christine perform on SNL.

Interview by Melissa Page


Posted April 20, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, Music, Uncategorized
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Secrets of MASS MoCA: Phyllis Criddle

Every museum has a well-kept secret.  Whether it’s a stolen sketch, a haunted hallway, or a hidden painting tucked beneath another print, such covert wonders are proudly guarded as they help form each cultural hub’s individuality.  Today we reveal one of our favorite secrets—Phyllis Criddle.  You may not have heard of her (yet) because we have been keeping her all to ourselves.

Though only 23, she’s worked at MASS MoCA for 7 years, more than half the life of the museum! Starting as a member of the Art Fab crew, she went from working with hardware to working at Hardware, the MASS MoCA Store, where she is now the assistant manager.  Phyllis does more than run the store.  She has created a custom line of MASS MoCA clothing and accessories, embodying the museum’s mission of catalyzing new, bold art, which includes her famed Wilco dress (seen above, modeled on Phyllis).

Her first MASS MoCA creation was a dress crafted from the museum’s logo-splashed t-shirts.  Completely hand-sewn and definitely one-of-a-kind, the dress was rumored to be purchased by one of the creators of the video game phenomenon Rock BandHis wife even appeared at MASS MoCA this past summer, wearing the dress to the Bang on a Can Festival.  Phyllis also was commissioned to create Katharina Grosse inspired tablecloths, which were draped over every table at the museum’s 2011 Benefit in New York.

The buzz around Phyllis has recently grown ever since she debuted her Wilco fashion line, created out of hundreds of wristbands from the Solid Sound Festival held at MASS MoCA.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted December 19, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Hardware, Secrets of MASS MoCA, Wilco Solid Sound Festival
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Maya Beiser’s All-Star Team

Maya Beiser, founding cellist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, comes to MASS MoCA with a seriously impressive team for her psychological cello opera Elsewhere, being shown on Saturday, December 10 at 8pm.

Incorporating cello, vocals, spoken word, video, dance, and elaborate sets, she’ll be accompanied by choreographer Karole Armitage and four dancers, producer Beth Morrison, director Robert Woodruff, projection designer Peter Nigrini, and composer Eve Beglarian.

Here’s the All-Star Line-up for Elsewhere: Read the rest of this entry »

Posted December 2, 2011 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Alternative Cabaret, BLOG, Dance, Music
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