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Ayanna Witter-Johnson – Keeping Jamaican Folksong alive

THE VOICE caught up with multi-talented singer, songwriter, pianist and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson to talk about being a second generation Jamaican, that is doing something quite unique and special by keeping the traditions of Jamaican folksong alive through her music.

Across several EPs and an album, plus live performances, most notably two sellout shows at Purcell Room this summer, Witter-Johnson has become known for her 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 of her cello, into her sound and vibe.

With her January 2021 EP ‘Rise Up’, the artist celebrates black culture and identity to uplift and inspire the next generation.

The collection of three tracks and videos featuring Akala on ‘Rise Up’, Cleveland Watkiss on ‘Declaration Of Rights’ a reimaging of the Abyssinians reggae classic, and the ‘Rise Up Riddim’, all received much critical acclaim.

“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 Witter-Johnson.

Now we see her moving her narrative forward as she explores the rich musical legacy of her Jamaican heritage through storytelling where she draws on the influence of reggae, UK lovers rock music and the energy of soundman culture on her works.

But it is Jamaican folksong, a dying tradition that big islanders have used for centuries to pass down stories from generation to generation that has become embedded as a central part of her work.

From much loved folksongs like ‘Hill and Gully’, ‘De Ribber Ben Comes Dung’, ‘Linstead Market’ and ‘Sammy Dead Oh’, Ayanna has taken the old fashioned stuffiness of the concert hall and has an audience of followers ready to get up, stand up to dance and sing with her.

“I strongly believe that Jamaican culture has so much wisdom and joy to offer the world and Jamaican folksong is a part of that heritage,” Witter-Johnson enthused.

“Folksong holds the stories of the ancestors and knowing who you are and where you come from is essential in life.

“I love to sing folksongs and teach them to live audiences in my shows so that we can partake in the music making together.”

With an upcoming performance at Wilton’s Music Hall on July 20, Witter-Johnson has been commissioned by classical ensemble Solem Quartet to perform at Beethoven Bartók Now, which experiments with the late quartets of Beethoven and Bartók with modern day composers.

For this special night, Witter-Johnson has composed a new piece, which she has aptly titled ‘Island Suite’.

As she explains, she composed ‘Island Suite’ to reflect the folk tradition in Bartók’s work.

“Classical music has a strong history of composers being inspired by folk music and in Bartok’s case Eastern-European Folk music which has a really rich tradition. As part of being commissioned by the Solem Quartet to compose a piece for the Beethoven Bartok Now series, they wanted me to be inspired by the music of Beethoven and Bartok, so it felt natural to latch on to that connection of celebrating folk culture.

“Bartok’s music gave me permission to be adventurous, not only in subject matter but in terms of musical texture and the sonic landscape of the piece.”

With its poetic references, the beautiful lyrics of ‘Island Suite’ talk about ‘Being named by a flower blessed by ancestors tongues’ and she explains ‘Island Suite’ was inspired by the poetry of late, great Jamaican dub poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and the wordplay of Benjamin Zephaniah.

“I had the great privilege of being on an episode of BBC World Service’s The Forum show celebrating women of African and Caribbean descent alongside Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah.

“I had read some of her poetry but was blown away by her performance of ‘Simple Tings’ in person. She later allowed me to set some of her poems by Ella to music for a piece commissioned by the vocal group ‘Voice’.

“Growing up my Mum bought me one of Benjamin Zephaniah’s books called ‘Talking Turkeys’ and I just loved it! The humour, the rhythm, the unexpected characters. Just delightful.”
Jamaican folksong is a way of passing down oral history, a purpose of the culture which gets very little recognition, but thanks to Witter Johnson the form is set to continue to spread in awareness and entertain listeners, something Ayanna is very much passionate about keeping alive .

She said: “Community is very important to me because I feel that strong communities make for healthier societies in general, so I like to encourage that in my music and in particular my live shows.”

Ayanna Witter Johnson will perform ‘Island Suite’ with Solem Quartet at Beethoven Bartók Now: Experiments on July 20. More info here

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