Vermont Arts Council

First Person: The Sound of (Black) Music

“The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

First Person
by Vaughan Supple

The classic musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein has been performed on Broadway since 1959, and its film adaptation starring Julie Andrews is equally beloved. By now, the story has become all but ubiquitous in popular culture, but on June 3, I had the privilege of witnessing it in an entirely new light. 

The Sound of (Black) Music, an Afrofuturist interpretation directed by Oregon native Kamilah Long and New York City-based Shariffa Ali, kicked off Burlington Discover Jazz Festival this month. The production features musicians such as Vuyo Sotashe, Brianna Thomas, and Chareene Wade singing unique renditions of the classic soundtrack, in addition to instrumental accompaniment. The musicians performed the songs at the Flynn Theater on Friday night, where I and other audience members settled in to enjoy colorful visuals, lively rhythms, and familiar melodies.

Picture from outside the Flynn theater in Burlington with the marquee displaying an advertisement for Discover Jazz Festival.

Earlier that day, I sat down with producer Jono Gasparro to talk about the creative process. Gasparro splits his professional time between New York and Los Angeles, mainly focusing on his company Electric Root, founded in 2020. He spoke enthusiastically about the many names involved with this grand production. “Everyone is going to fall in love with these singers tonight,” he affirmed.

Gasparro, along with artistic partner Michael Mwenso, worked extensively as creators of The Sound of (Black) Music. Mwenso, originally from Sierra Leone, is now based between New York and Los Angeles as a co-founder of Electric Root. Together, they served as the official curators of the 2022 Burlington Jazz Fest.

The musical was first performed last year at Bard College in New York; this summer, it has been revived once more. Gasparro describes the musical as the “perfect opening” for the festival, showcasing the many different music styles that were featured throughout the week.

The Sound of (Black) Music is an absolute treat for the senses, offering intriguing sounds and powerful stage presences. As my eyes wandered over the splashy colors and lavish flowers ornamenting the stage, I reflected on what Gasparro told me about the efforts that went into the performance. “When we first did it, we had two full weeks at Bard,” he explained, “but we haven’t done it since then, and I underestimated how much work would go into getting it back up.” 

He detailed the difficulties of gathering all the solo artists and directors in one place to practice: “Kamilah [Long] flew from Oregon… Jon Thomas, the piano player, left at five in the morning to get here for rehearsal yesterday.” It was clear that putting this big production together was no easy feat. Gasparro even faced a few challenges himself: “Three flights, got a flight canceled, I had to sleep in a lobby overnight somewhere.”

A still image from the performance showing singer Vuyo Sotashe raising his arms as the instrumentalists play.

Between the sound, lighting, tech equipment, and rehearsal space, there was more than enough adversity to go around. However, as Gasparro said, these efforts have truly been a labor of love. From my seat among the audience, that love came through clearly and resoundingly in the music, the set design, and the raw energy of the cast.

Above all else, the production’s crowning achievement is its soundtrack. The Sound of (Black Music) reworks the classic 1959 songs to incorporate elements of Black music genres. “Prelude” features a chorus of beautiful R&B harmonies, while “Do-Re-Mi” escalates into a double-time coda packed with energy. Lesser-known songs were equally enjoyable, such as the stunning jazz piano rendition of “Edelweiss,” or the heavy, lurching beat of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” As the night concluded and I left the theater, I found myself incessantly humming the chorus of “So Long, Farewell,” infused with the danceable groove of 1970s funk. 

Behind this process of musical transposition is Mathis Picard, a prolific pianist and scholar of Black music, whose worldly upbringing influenced the diverse sounds of Friday night’s performance.

A graphic reading, "'We want to raise voices that may not be known yet, but that we know are very special.' — Jono Gasparro"

Going beyond the soundtrack, The Sound of (Black) Music is a work of Afrofuturism, a movement that envisions the future of freedom and imagination from the lens of Black culture. In predominantly white cities such as Burlington, productions like these are all the more important, which Gasparro noted in our conversation.

Ultimately, The Sound of (Black) Music brings people together to celebrate the beauty and empowerment of Black music through a familiar medium. It stands as a testament to the cross-cultural, universal powers of music. “Music can serve to refresh someone’s spirit,” Gasparro said, “and I want everyone to be leaving feeling hopeful or healed in some way.” The Sound of (Black) Music fulfills this aim perfectly, offering an abundance of joy, hope, and soul.

Friday night’s production of The Sound of (Black) Music was the first of two scheduled for the summer of 2022. The next performance takes place at Bard College’s Fisher Center on June 24. Visit for more information.