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Brown Sounds Brown Sounds

Composed by Ayanna Witter-Johnson, poetry by Henry Dumas

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A celebration of Black art by an all-Black creative team.

Here's an important reminder: Black history didn't begin with slavery. So let's celebrate Black lives by going further back in time...much further back...all the way back to the Garden of Eden. 

The product of an all-Black creative team, Brown Sounds is masterminded by the extraordinary Raehann Bryce-Davis, a rising star whose 2020 LA Opera appearances made audiences stand up and take notice. It's an evocative vocal piece tailored specifically for her ravishing mezzo-soprano: composer Ayanna Witter-Johnson's musical setting of poet Henry Dumas's delicious verses.

In this uplifting new Digital Short, Brown Sounds gets a sumptuous visual treatment from a dynamic assembly of artists—filmmaker Jérémy Adonis, fashion designer Allan Virgo and dancer Lateef Williams—all united in a joyous celebration of Black art, Black bodies and Black consciousness.

Brown Sounds is presented by LA Opera in collaboration with the African American Art Song Alliance, Aural Compass Projects, Black Opera Alliance, National Association of Negro Musicians and the Philadelphia Dance Company.

Creative Team

Executive Producer
Raehann Bryce-Davis
Jérémy Adonis
Conceptual Creator
Raehann Bryce-Davis
Ayanna Witter-Johnson
Henry Dumas
Costume Designer / Stylist
Allan Virgo


Raehann Bryce-Davis
Lateef Williams
Jeanne-Minette Cilliers

The Poem

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The Poem

"Brown Sounds"
by Henry Dumas (1934-1968)

brown sound chocolate
like the first time
you saw grapes
and tasted them
and learned the color

brown sound cream milk
like the first time
you saw bees
and tasted gold
and learned the honey

brown sound africa
like the first time
you exploded between legs
and heard drums
and learned the message
of rhythm love
brown sound america
like the first time
you saw that wild crazy horse
riding through painted desert
and you learned the grand canyon
red mother
brown sound
black outline
like the first time
like the first time
the first time
is the last time
like that

Program Notes

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Program Notes

Program notes by Raehann Bryce-Davis

Brown Sounds—The Story
Eden envelops us, all things are new, untouched, full of curiosity. Brown Sounds echo through the garden.

Violence tears us from our dwelling place; the original sin of slavery uprooting bodies and trees.

But the end is not yet. We dig our roots into the soil, we stretch our limbs to the sun, we find new truths, new loves, new power. Eden. Selah.

The Making of Brown Sounds
As a grad student living at International House in 2013, I was assigned a poem to recite for Black History Month. Every night, I had coachings with Columbia University playwright Lunga Radebe, who pushed me continually to find new colors and truths in the text. When the time came for me to give my recital later that semester, I realized the words were still singing in my being. I asked fellow Manhattan School of Music student Ayanna Witter-Johnson if she could set the words to music and she graciously said yes. At the premiere, I was joined onstage by dancer Dionne Simone Kamara from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. Thus was born Brown Sounds, a celebration of the unification of the Black arts in poetry, composition, song and dance.

For this 2021 reincarnation of Brown Sounds, I wanted to add visual vibrancy to the Black arts represented, and I found inspiration in Allan Virgo, a Jamaican American designer (who has designed for brands like Michael Kors), who provided narrative with his designs. Soon after, I saw Lateef Williams dance in a digital short for which I had provided vocals, and completely fell in love with his movement. This featured artist of the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen in turn introduced me to a very exciting French director with a fresh aesthetic named Jérémy Adonis, who is based in Brussels, and together with award-winning, UK singer/songwriter Ayanna Witter-Johnson, we created an all-star Black creative team representing the vast experiences of the African diaspora.

In addition to the creative team, we meet the artistry of pianist Jeanne-Minette Cilliers, Studienleiter at the Royal Conservatory of Antwerp, as well as Andrew Richards, a famed Wagnerian tenor and recording engineer, and AV Inspire's Geert De Deken, who help us craft the iconic sound you will hear. Significant contributions are also made by makeup artist Joke Berton, hair stylist Lilly Odion, lighting and video sssistants Adrien Leonard and James Barbosa, and line producers Octopods.

The Message
Young Black children are often taught that their history begins with slavery. Our purpose with this consummation of the Black Arts Movement is to portray a history that goes back to the beginning of time and stretches far into the untapped treasures of the future: a celebration of Black art, Black bodies, Black consciousness. 

"What stunned me about the poem is how it used Black myth to construct a narrative of the diaspora before and after colonialism and enslavement.... There is an Edenic, utopian quality to Dumas’ depiction of precolonial Africa."
Ta-Nehisi Coates on "Rootsong" by Henry DumasThe Atlantic

This project is generously supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and from a consortium of donors to LA Opera’s Contemporary Opera Initiative, chaired by Barry and Nancy Sanders. 

Henry Dumas's poem “Brown Sounds" copyright © 1968-2021 by Loretta Dumas and Eugene B. Redmond. Used by permission of the Henry Dumas Estate, Eugene B. Redmond, executor, c/o Faith Childs Literary Agency, Inc.

Artwork for Brown Sounds
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