Monday, August 31, 2009

Sweet Honey celebrates Duke Gardens' 75th

By Orla Swift

Sarah P. Duke Gardens’ South Lawn was ablast in bright colors Sunday with a sight never before seen: roughly 7,500 people packed in for a free concert by a cappella queens Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The afternoon concert, co-produced by the Gardens and Duke Performances, commemorated the Gardens’ 75th anniversary.

Fans flocked to the Gardens from throughout the state, as well as Virginia, New York and elsewhere, arriving hours before the 4 p.m. show, eager to soak in the Gardens' flavor and an afternoon with the Grammy winners, whose career spans more than 35 years.

Sweet Honey’s music is worth a long wait in steamy sunshine, said Heshima DuEwa, of Durham, a fan since the group's inception.

"They sing with a consciousness of not only the plight of the people here but the plight of the people the world around," she said.

The music is educational, too, she said as the group did a 2 p.m. sound check in front of the growing crowd.

"It makes you want to go further than here and do a little research sometimes," she said. "If they’re singing about something, let’s say something that’s happening in Brazil, and you don’t know this issue, it makes you want to go and look it up so that when you hear it the next time, you can really relate to it."

"I also like the fact that they show what the human body can do," added her friend, Terry Tiamd, who drove from Charlotte for the show. "They don’t have instruments other than their bodies, their voices, things that are handmade. It speaks to their creativity and their intelligence."

Sweet Honey has its own sign language interpreter, Shirley Childress Saxton, and a number of deaf or hearing-impaired people sat up front to see Saxton's signing. At each song’s end, they raised their hands and shook their palms in silent, signed applause as the crowd around them roared.

"It doesn't get much better than this: a beautiful, if hot, Sunday afternoon, a remarkable and inspiring group of musicians, a beautiful setting, and a diverse crowd representing every part of our university and community," said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke's vice president for public affairs and government relations. "This was a special day for Duke and Durham."

Openers The Bailey Elites, a shout band from Durham, got the show off to a rousing start, with horn-driven gospel music – interpreted in sign language by Mary Shelton, of Fuquay Varina. The Elites' set finished with a long, interactive version of "When the Saints Go Marching In," with audience members drawing waves of applause as they sang solo refrains in the microphone.

Here are some additional photos. Also, please see the fantastic audio slideshow, "When the Spirit Says Sing," by Duke's Faith & Leadership program.

Bill LeFevre, Duke Gardens' executive director, greets the crowd, with Saxton interpreting in sign language.

Braima Moiwai, of Durham, left, teaches New Yorker Bradley Simmons how to sign "I love you."

Terry Tiamd, of Charlotte, says Sweet Honey's performances show what the body can do.

Shirley Childress Saxton, left, signs as Ysaye Barnwell sings.

Sweet Honey encouraged the audience to sing along, with assigned parts sung in the round.

Aisha Kahlil leads Bob Marley's "Redemption Song."

Even those soaking up the shade behind the stage were encouraged to join in.

More Bailey Elites photos.

People were still streaming in at a steady pace well after the show had started. And the crowds overflowed into the Terrace Gardens, the paths surrounding the South Lawn, and behind the stage.

The crowd stuck around for a long time socializing afterward.

People stopped at the Terrace Shop booth to buy the Gardens' new T-shirts and other items.

This is the Gardens' new T-shirt, in case you missed it at the show.

Wendy Brownlee, of Charlotte, below at left, relaxes with her pals as the crowd dissipates. Brownlee drove to Durham for the concert with her pals Ashika Weekes, center, of Charlotte, and Kenya Templeton, of Statesville.

Brownlee is an ardent Sweet Honey fan, having seen them 13 times. She said she loves their music so much that she once auditioned to join them.

"My mom said I was probably like an old lady in the fields who sang all the time in a previous life," Brownlee said. "And my grandmother always said that the way I sang the old spirituals as a child was like an old person."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Today's the day: Sweet Honey in the Rock, 4 p.m.

The big day is here, and the weather's looking better by the minute. Please come to the Gardens and enjoy the free concert by Sweet Honey in the Rock at 4 p.m. Parking is free, too, and we'll have shuttle buses. The concert is a co-production by Duke Gardens and Duke Performances, in celebration of the Gardens' 75th anniversary. The Bailey Elites, a local shout band, will open the show at 3:30 p.m. Sweet Honey's performance includes sign language interpretation.

The show will go on rain or shine. The only thing that would stop it is hazardous weather, with high winds or lightning. But that's not looking likely at all. We'll keep you apprised here and at our Twitter site.

Read more about the concert, Sweet Honey and logistics here.
Read an interview with Sweet Honey's ASL interpreter in the post below this.
Read the Independent Weekly's feature on the Bailey Elites here.

Here are some photos of the concert setup this morning.

Below, Duke Gardens horticulturist Jason Holmes brings potted plants to the South Lawn to decorate the stage.

Portable toilets are in place (but there are also bathrooms in the Doris Duke Center and in the Terrace Gardens adjacent to the South Lawn).

It was a tight squeeze bringing all the equipment in from Flowers Drive.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A conversation with Sweet Honey's sign language interpreter

By Orla Swift
Sarah P. Duke Gardens

For almost 30 years, Shirley Childress Saxton has been interpreting Sweet Honey in the Rock concerts in American Sign Language. And the Grammy-winning D.C.-based a cappella ensemble has an ardent following in the deaf community.

But to many people – deaf and hearing alike – the notion of deaf people attending a concert still seems strange. After all, isn’t a concert all about sound?

Not solely, Childress says.

She will prove this by example Sunday, when Duke Gardens and Duke Performances present Sweet Honey in the Rock for a free concert on the South Lawn at 4 p.m. (Full concert info here.)

Childress, who is the daughter of deaf parents but not deaf herself, fell in love with musical sign language interpretation watching her mother sign hymns in church.

Childress also serves as an interpreter in academic, social service and other assignments. But she says interpreting music is a unique challenge.

“I try to let go of Shirley the person and let the song claim its space and do its work,” she wrote in an essay for “We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock…Still On the Journey,” by Sweet Honey founder Bernice Johnson Reagon.

“I continuously work to develop a more poetic style. It is the same concept as singers taking voice lessons; they are always trying to improve style and technique. It requires keeping focused on the message, on the person who is receiving the message, on the deaf audience.”

In a telephone interview this week, Childress shared some more thoughts about her vocation. Following are excerpts from that conversation.

On skepticism in the deaf community about the value of attending a concert:
"For many deaf people, there’s still a feeling that music and singing is not something that they’re initially interested in. … Right from the initial invitation of ‘Come see this event,’ it’s like, ‘Oh, boring. Songs and hearing people and their music. Enough already.’

"And I understand that, I do understand that. I turn on TV myself sometimes, and if there are people who are in a rock band, I’ll just turn off the sound, and I’ll say, ‘This is boring.’ If there’s nobody sign interpreting and there are just these mouths moving and bodies shaking, I’m just like, ‘OK, where’s the animal channel?’ "

On Sweet Honey vibrations:
"For deaf people, their residual hearing ranges. And some people who are profoundly deaf will experience the concert in a different way. Some people have been known to bring balloons to a concert to help conduct the vibrations. There’s no huge vibrational content as in a rock band; it’s voice. But there is some vibration. And especially if there are chairs, and if the chairs or benches have wooden arms or if there’s a wooden floor, they do convey the vibration."

On silent applause:
"Clapping is a sound-based way of applause. When you see deaf people applauding, their hands are stretched up to the sky, sometimes all the way up high, straight up, or just slightly raised. And you’re twisting your hand, your palm."

On changing attitudes:
"There’s still discrimination, intentional or unintentional, even to this day. We’ve passed laws – the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Vocational Rehab Act; there’ve been a number of laws that have been passed in terms of civil rights for people with disabilities. So that has changed the face of the outward discrimination.

"But there’s still an attitudinal discrimination that many deaf people have experienced. And even to the present day, deaf people still have to overcome the attitudinal barrier, the communication barrier. But the attitudinal barrier precedes the communication barrier. If a person has an attitude that says, ‘I want to communicate with you,’ they will find ways – a smile, a gesture, a hug, writing a note back and forth. But if they have an attitude that says, ‘I can’t deal with you. I won’t deal with you,’ that’s the first barrier."

On the differences between signing a speech and a song:
"A song has movement. So the sign language interpreter is moving inside the song. The only thing I can visualize is a tree standing still and a tree in movement when the wind blows. It depends on the feeling, the emotion that the song is portraying. And it’s similar in terms of a speech; if a person is conveying a strong, passionate speech or is slow to speak or is angry about something or has intense feelings about something, the interpreter is trying to convey that."

On the lessons of a Sweet Honey concert:
"We learn not through textbooks only, or in a classroom, but we learn through experiences we have in life, the rich experience of having an open mind and an open heart, of being able to share in this life experience. …

"Sweet Honey’s conversation with the audience can range from topics of political interest – 'Ain’t Gonna Study War No More' – to sexual abuse, to financial topics, hunger. The range of topics is of universal human interest."

On silent music:
"Deaf people sing in church, in celebration, worshipping God and spirituality. Deaf people sing the blues, in a sense of expressing emotion. Singing is a language in rhythm and poetic expression. And so deaf people sing. My mom sings. Even today, as we travel about, or just in conversation, she will look up at the sky and say, ‘Oh, beautiful moon and stars,’ and break out into song in sign language about the beauty of God’s nature.

"So deaf people do the same kind of celebration in song, of humanity, in celebration of love of family, in religious experience and whatever kind of experience in which people express themselves in a heartfelt way. That’s what I look at songs and singing as being, a message from the heart, spirit to spirit. It’s not just vocal, it’s a message."

Read Saxton’s full biography here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Movie Night: Dorothy spared yet again.

And Toto, too.
The rain looks too probable tonight to proceed with "The Wizard of Oz."
Hope to see you next week.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Movie Night: Dorothy is spared her ordeal...

....for a week.

The weather was playing "chicken" with us. We remained optimistic that the rain would skirt around Durham, but it didn't. About 15 minutes into the film, it rained. So Dorothy will have to bump her Wizard appointment to next Wednesday. can get a glimpse of what a lovely movie theater we have, and the cool screen that Airblown Entertainment set up for us.

Thanks to all who came for our series premiere. Please return next week.