Ysaÿe Barnwell, pt. 1

On Nov. 21, 2017, I interviewed Ysaÿe Barnwell in her home in Washington, DC. Ms. Barnwell was a member of the African American a cappella ensemble, Sweet Honey in the Rock, from 1979 to 2013. She is a prolific composer and public speaker.

Jonathan Dimmock: I want to use music as a way to help the world come together. In your work with Sweet Honey in the Rock, to what degree does the audience’s presence and intention effect what you do? And how does the music effect the audience? What’s happening?

Ysaÿe Barnwell: I did a TED Talk two years ago about how we’re not singing (as a culture) anymore, and what role music used to play. This year, I did a Community-Sing as my TED Talk. And we did it in the Congressional Room of the Boston’s Edward Kennedy Library. My focus was a discussion of worldview. I realized, at some point, that there’s a Euro-centric view of music and an Afro-centric view. And they are diametrically opposed – one rooted in the note and the other rooted in the sound.

JD: Could you say that the “note” reflects an intellectual understanding, and the “sound” reflects an experiential understanding?

YB: Exactly. The “sound” is about telling our story. And I can’t tell my story very well by myself. And I think this difference is hugely important for musicians to look at. In other words, the audience is integral to the music.

Why do we make music? What good is a song if it doesn’t inspire? if it has no message to bring? if the song doesn’t take you higher?

In the African worldview of music, music ties together all of the spiritual dimensions, human dimensions, and historic dimensions together. It documents our everyday life, from music of spirituals to hip hop. Without music, we don’t have our history.

So, a huge difference between these two paradigms is function. The function of African music is to weave us together on a conscious level.

JD: So is music’s purpose to weave together? Is it also about communicating something beyond ourselves? Is it about showing emotion, or bringing emotion out? 

YB: It’s about all of those things, but also about the way in which we tell our history. The musicians are our library!

JD: In the Western tradition, in the Medieval Age, books like Beowolf were intended to be sung, improvised. And the singer carried the information from village to village.

YB: Yes! And that still happens for us. And this is exactly why I’m so focused on worldview. You can see the way this plays out when two or more groups of people come together to make a decision about something. We can be in the same room, using the same words, and mean something completely different.

JD: How do we bridge that?

YB: With audiences I bridge that by working in the oral tradition. I put together different musics from different periods of our development as African-Americans. I try to show the importance of function and documentation. I believe that polyrhythms are the ability to make different structures work together. This is my passion right now.

JD: That’s beautiful!

Can speak to me about how music often gets viewed as entertainment in our culture. I believe that we, as serious musicians, want to bring great integrity to what we do, not just show off a craft. We want to communicate something. But this is an uphill struggle for us because we run into people who don’t understand the power of what we’re doing. How does one work with that? Do the audiences coming to performances of Sweet Honey in the Rock come looking for entertainment? Do they know they’re going to be asked to get involved?

YB: Well our audiences understand that coming to a Sweet Honey concert is an open experience; one doesn’t come just to listen. We bring up issues, questions, encouraging everyone to sing, and allowing people to contribute their own harmonies. I think most of our audience understands that the Sweet Honey experience is a different kind of experience. And being invited to participate changes people’s attitude. When we performed in Carnegie Hall, people came ready! People even came dressed up so as to match the costumes we used to wear.

to be continued…