WITTER-JOHNSON Ayanna, Draw the line
Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a multi-talented singer, songwriter, pianist and cellist. She has a phenomenal mastery for seamlessly crossing the boundaries of classical, jazz, reggae, soul and R&B, to imprint her unique musical signature with her virtuosic tap, strum and bow with her cello into her sound and vibe.
“As a second-generation Jamaican born in Britain, my music is a body of work that represents, celebrates and pays homage to my ancestral heritage, culture and identity,” explains Ayanna.
An acclaimed and celebrated performer, Ayanna has collaborated with many stellar artists, including Anoushka Shankar, Nitin Sawhney, Andrea Bocelli and Jools Holland. She has also toured extensively across the UK, Europe and the US.
After graduating with a first-class degree from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and the Manhattan School of Music, Ayanna participated in the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Young Composers Scheme. Soon after, as Emerging Artist in Residence at London’s Southbank Centre, Ayanna performed as a featured artist with Courtney Pine’s Afropeans: Jazz Warriors. Later,
whilst studying in the USA at New York’s Manhattan School of Music, she became the only non-American to win ‘Amateur Night Live at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NYC.
As a composer, Ayanna has been commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, Güerzenich Orchester, Ligeti Quartet, Kronos Quartet and The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company to name but a few. She was also selected as an arranger/orchestrator for the London Symphony Orchestra (Hugh Masekela, Belief) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Urban Classic).
Ayanna has released three EPs (‘Truthfully’, ‘Black Panther’ & ‘Ella, Reuben & Ay’) and put out her debut album ‘Road Runner’ in 2019, with its two subsequent singles’ Nothing Less’ and ‘Crossroads’, via her own independent record label (Hill and Gully Records). Ayanna has worked with producers Marc Mac (4Hero), James Yarde (Terri Walker, Jamelia, Eric Benet) and recorded with featured artists, including pianist Robert Mitchell and rapper Akala.
With her January 2021 surprise-released EP ‘Rise Up, Ayanna again combined reggae, classical, jazz and R&B to celebrate black culture and identity to uplift and inspire the next generation. The stunning collection of three tracks and videos featuring Akala on ‘Rise Up’, Cleveland Watkiss on ‘Declaration Of Rights’ and the ‘Rise Up Riddim’ have received a huge amount of critical acclaim.
Ayanna said, ‘In ‘Rise Up’, I created a song with a strong message specifically influenced by my Jamaican heritage. The starting point was a dancehall riddim that informed the main cello riff. Lyrically, I challenged myself to create something uplifting with an uplifting message, and it just flowed. I wrote the song for the next generation in the black community to remember they are the key to the future. To celebrate their culture and to be proud of it. Now is not the time to give up on your dreams. No matter how hard things seem, Rise Up, embrace our history and claim our birth rights of freedom and joy.”
Many of Ayanna’s remarkable tracks have received airplay on radio stations, including BBC Radio 1, 1Xtra, 2, 3, 4, 6, BBC Radio London, BBC Manchester, Jazz FM and Scala Radio. Her TV credits include BBC One, London Live, Channel 4 (Sing It Loud: Black and Proud), BBC Proms and a stunning performance on Later…with Jools Holland (BBC One).
Despite the challenges of 2020, Ayanna took it all in her stride and continued to create music. She performed a special Livestream for Royal Albert Hall, took part in Trinity Laban’s Virtual Orchestra and picked up an AIM Award nomination for ‘Best Live Act’. In addition, she presented two shows at Wigmore Hall, appeared on BBC Radio 3’s ‘This Classical Life’ podcast, co-wrote and featured on Anoushka Shankar’s Grammy single ‘Those Words’ from the Grammy-nominated Love Letters EP. Ayanna also collaborated with and featured on Nitin Sawhney’s stunning single ‘Movement Variation II’ taken from his acclaimed recent album ‘Immigrants’.
2021 was a stellar year for Ayanna. Collaborating with Solem Quartet as part of their Beethoven Bartok Now series, she has also had her song ‘Draw the Line’, commissioned by The Hermes Experiment, and featured on their sophomore album ‘Songs’. Ayanna also featured on the track called ‘Flow My Tears’ with John Aram, the arranger for Phil Collins. The song is a slick, modern-day reimagining of English composer John Dowland’s 400- year-old music. That year saw Ayanna return to the live stage, headlining at London’s iconic Jazz Café and Kings Place. She made additional performances supporting Nubiyan Twist on their UK tour, participating in ‘Jazz Voice’ (the opening of the London Jazz Festival) at the Royal Festival Hall and a 22-date US tour with Opera superstar Andrea Bocelli.
In 2022, Ayanna continued her composition work with several commissions for ensembles and orchestras, including a Royal Philharmonic Society Commission for the Philharmonia Ensemble (‘Equinox’). Her talent saw her compose for the sold out, hit theatre production, ‘The Collaboration’, at London’s Young Vic Theatre, and composed additional music for the renowned documentary ‘Hostile’.
With two headlined shows at London’s Purcell Rooms, and a headlined show at Wigmore Hall featuring guest artists, Ayanna’s continues to inspire with her composition ‘FAIYA!’ performed by the LSO in Trafalgar Square (conducted by Sir Simon Rattle), and collaborating on a number of live performances with ‘Solem Quartet’ of her composition ‘Island Suite’, which was originally commissioned by them as part of their ‘Beethoven Bartok Now Part IV’ series.
Venturing into new territories, Ayanna was cast in a cameo role in the new Amazon Prime series adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s ‘Anansi Boys’, alongside greats such as Whoopi Goldberg, which airs in 2024. She is currently on tour (EU/UK/USA/Canada) with Peter Gabriel as a member of his band (voice, cello, piano) for his upcoming album i/o.
Ayanna is a performer of extraordinary versatility, due to her musical prowess, mesmerising vocals, non-compromising lyrics, and ability to deftly reinterpret songs on the cello. Her must-see live shows are intimate journeys that chronicle her experience as a female artist in the 21st century.
Ayanna Witter-Johnson is the very definition of eclectic soul.
Draw the line (2020)
Commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust for soprano Heloise Werner and double bassist Marianne Schofield of The Hermes Experiment. Draw the Line is a duo for soprano and double bass. A song anchored by a driving, organically built bass part that reflects and explores the depth of sadness and frustration that arose between two friends, from different backgrounds, unified by the series of lockdowns in London 2020, yet divided as a result of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The vocal part, a lament with powerful lyrics that seek to explain the source of those feelings of frustration now brought to the surface. The raw energy of the uncompromising double bass part explodes in a demonstration of the pain of the conflict. ‘It’s your word against mine, every single time, every single time, we’ve got to draw the line’. The intensity of the story leads to a moment of release reflected in the middle section which features the passages of bass played harmonics. This release is, however, short lived. An understanding is never quite reached. “Losing a legacy based on abuse, choosing ignorance is no excuse” are lyrics that portray a tough reality that is hard to swallow. The main theme attempts to return with an explanation but ultimately, we have to just ‘Draw the Line’.
© Faber Music