The whole thing kind of happened on accident. The reasoning behind it, however, wasn’t one.
Sonny Muscato is the type of person that instantly draws you in. Energetic, happy-go-lucky and a stud on the drums, he’s got a magnetic personality. But he’s gone through some tough times, a byproduct of hanging around roughneck South Buffalo streets and a lack of societal support. Sonny Muscato is autistic.
Herein lies the reasoning. In terms of awareness and research of disabilities, autism has only recently been put in the spotlight. There aren’t the myriad of programs for adults like you might find with Down’s Syndrome; in fact, there aren’t many programs at all. Sick of hearing the same excuses from the same people, Sonny’s brother — musician Max Muscato — took it upon himself to make the change. Herein lies the happy accident.
“For a long time, my brother wasn’t getting the help we wanted him to be getting,” Muscato said. “He’s an unbelievable musician, artist and loves filmmaking. But how many programs have you heard of that focus on these disciplines and cater exclusively to those with autism?”
The Muscatos are a family of musicians. Max, Sonny and their father Marc all put a heavy emphasis on music — the people you meet, the connections, the healing power. Of all the things the classes and help groups used with Sonny growing up, it always came back to music. But once Sonny turned 18, he was out of the programs designed almost exclusively for children and minors.
“My brother kind of fell in with the wrong crowd,” Muscato said. “It culminated in a drunk corrections officer shooting him over a misunderstanding. He was in and out of jail for a few years after that. It was tough. We knew we needed to do something.”
After visiting Sonny in jail, Max and Marc decided to take action. An album release party for Max in 2017 was when the journey began, as he dedicated it to his brother. And in this moment, that Rock Autism was born.
“After receiving approval from New York State, the ball really started rolling,” Muscato said. “We had always wanted to do a music festival. So we hosted concerts, comedy nights, benefits, you name it — everything we could to raise enough money to put on a music festival. The entire goal being to raise enough from the festival where we could begin our primary program.”
Last year’s Rock Autism Music Festival raised close to $20,000, which allowed the organization to begin its Rock Autism Multimedia Vocational Program for Music and Film. The program teaches those with autism how to make music, create short films, and get their feet wet in the music industry. But most importantly, it gives them purpose.
“Our main partner when it comes to the music and film is Sensu Music, which is our record label,” Muscato said. “It allows us to sign them and release the music. Simultaneously, we teach them how to make short films — be the videographer, editor, DP, etc. — and the ultimate goal is to get them employed down the road after they’ve honed their craft.”
Rock Autism’s involvement in Ellicottville can be attributed to local celebrity and all-around great person Spencer Murray.
“When Max approached me about getting involved, I jumped right in,” Murray said. “It’s about helping people. I’m of the attitude that everyone deserves to be happy, and if we can help these people find a niche and perfect a craft so they can go live a happy life in the real world, then it’s working. It’s crazy how fast it’s grown — Max will tell you the same thing — and the community has been unbelievable in its involvement.”
The Ellicottville community, as it is so prone to do, welcomed Rock Autism with open arms. Utilizing the space of the Village Park to host the Festival, year two returns this Labor Day. Ellicottville Brewing Company recently released it’s aptly-named “Sonnyboy” IPA, and the Ellicottville Winery has a Rock Autism wine. A portion of both of the proceeds go directly to the organization.
On Saturday, August 24, Rock Autism will partner with Ellicottville’s Finnerty’s Taproom to present the 1st Annual Rock Autism Finnerty’s Golf Classic at Elkdale Country Club.
“It’s a 9-hole shamrock shootout at Elkdale,” said Finnerty’s owner and Rock Autism committee member Billy Finnerty. “We’ll have a pre-party at FTR at noon with lunch and a bloody mary bar. The shootout begins at 3:00 using the Stabelford System, followed with a big party at the restaurant afterwards. $100 per person and all proceeds will go to Rock Autism. It’s going to be a super fun day for a great cause.”
“What’s so cool about this entire thing are the connections we’ve made,” Muscato said. “We’ve got messages from people in London, Spain, Australia and everywhere else you can imagine, encouraging us and telling us to keep going. We’re finding we’re an inspiration for other like-minded groups. Our reach has expanded, too. We’ve done stuff in New York City, Los Angeles, and have an event coming up in Nashville this fall. It’s really unreal how fast the whole thing has grown.”
This year’s Rock Autism Music Festival in Ellicottville is set for Saturday, August 31 and will showcase The Allman Betts Band, sons of the legendary Allman Brothers Band. Other artists will be involved, and it’s a day real life music festival happening in Ellicottville. (Writer’s note: I’ve spent my entire life here, always envious of the festivals that happen in other places. Props to these guys for making it happen.) Gates open at 4pm.
“I credit my brother for all of this,” Muscato said. “He’s gone through some tough times. But without his resiliency and out-of-this-world positive attitude, none of this would have happened. He’s the driving force behind it all.”
For more information on the Rock Autism Music Festival including the band line-up, ticket pricing and more, head to RockAutism.org or @rockautism on Instagram.