Ayanna Witter-Johnson: “Regina Spektor of the cello” Grammy’s unusual outcomes to pave road for upcoming star?

By Olivia Goldman

Image from Ayanna 
Witter-Johnson’s myspace

This Friday (February 25) Ayanna Witter-Johnson will be performing at the Manhattan School of Music from 7:00-9:30pm—if you’re not busy that evening, it’ll definitely be worth going up a couple blocks from campus to check out.

Last weekend, among a whirlwind of ukuleles and dance remixes, the music industry decided to take a step away from the mold of the current mainstream. Female jazzer Esperanza Spalding and indie baroque-pop band Arcade Fire won Best New Artist, Best Album and the support of the nucleus of popular music—The Grammy’s.

This categorical shift in popular music could be just the thing for female jazz vocalist and classical composer Witter-Johnson to make her way through our earbuds. Hailing from London but currently based in New York City, Witter-Johnson takes the stage with her cello, a voice full of soul, and most importantly awe-striking potential.

The young performer already holds accomplishment and acclaim through performing on BBC radio, becoming an Emerging Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre in London, and winning the “Super Top Dog” award at Apollo Theatre‘s Amateur Night (the same showcase that Ella Fitzgerald triumphed in 1934 and a venue known to have launched big time names such as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson). She also experienced success in music scholarship by graduating with first class degree honors from Trinity College of Music in London. The Manhattan School of Music (near Broadway & 122nd) has also awarded Witter-Johnson a scholarship to study for her master’s in composition.

I saw Witter-Johnson perform live at the NuYorican Poets Cafe downtown, preceding Osekre and The Lucky Bastards and after performances of Columbia University artists Taylor Simone and the class-ensemble Worldmuse. She got up on the barely elevated stage, friendly and confident, sat down with her cello and rendered her audience breathless. Her first and most captivating song “Ain’t I a Woman?,” a rendition of a speech made by Sojourner Truth at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851, featured her soulful and capricious voice over an alteration of pizzicato (plucking) and exposed, hard-hitting harmonic figures she played from her cello. At times she would even knock rhythms on the cello’s body with her knuckles, a small example of her unique approach to music and her instrument. Her other songs, such as “Me and You” were less unusual but equally moving and passionate. One man, in response to her performance, commented, “She’s like the Regina Spektor of the cello!”

Olivia is a first-year at Barnard and Arts editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

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