Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Cello, ‘Reuben,’ Isn’t One For the Elements

Of Jamaican heritage and English birth, Witter-Johnson plays world music with a personal stamp all her own.

By Cliff Hall | From the March-April 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Although Ayanna Witter-Johnson has been quite popular across the pond since her 2016 breakout performance of The Police’s “Roxanne” for the MOBO (“Music of Black Origin”) Awards preshow, her first big splash in the United States came in 2023 as she played cello and sang backup on Peter Gabriel’s i/o tour. She seamlessly stepped into Kate Bush’s shoes as she sang “Don’t Give Up” and provided beautiful cello solos, all of which showcased her diverse musical background. Of Jamaican heritage and English birth, Witter-Johnson plays world music with a personal stamp all her own. 

Tell me about your primary instrument.

My cello is labeled a Benedikt Lang from Mittenwald, Germany, made in 1978.

What do you know about this instrument’s history? 

The Lang family were a dynasty of violin makers from Luby (now in the Czech Republic). Benedikt was born in Luby in 1893 but died in Mittenwald in 1975, so my cello was probably made by his son or another member of the family.

How did you come to play it? What first drew you to it and how did you know it was the right fit? 

It was loaned to me during my secondary school years by one of the school governors. After I finished my A levels, he offered me the chance to purchase it from him, and my grandmother kindly bought it for me as a gift. Compared to the school cupboard cello that I initially had on loan, the governor’s cello made a very special sound, so I became attached to it quite quickly.


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What gift does your instrument bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?

It has pretty unique ornamental purfling all the way around both the front and back of the body as well as on the sides of the scroll. It’s quite beautiful, and the cello makes the most resonant, deep sound, which works very well for my percussive technique of playing, as there are lots of tones to play with.

What is your instrument’s personality and temperament like? Does it remind you of anyone or anything?

First, his name is Reuben, and he is equal parts introvert and extrovert—much like me! He’s generally quite peaceful and listens well but definitely has his moments where he likes to be heard. He also enjoys the bright lights and flying all over the world to play for audiences and having a fuss made over him. In fact, Reuben is going through an extroverted period at the moment. He is about to release a library album under the artist name Reuben & Ay titled Edge of the Bow coming out via Audio Network later this spring.

Does he perform better in certain situations?

Yes, he performs much better indoors with a stable room temperature. He’s not a fan of outdoor gigs, generally speaking, and most certainly not when it’s cold, raining, or scorching hot.

What are your cello’s greatest strengths? 

Its rich warm tone and beautiful body with the purfling.

What are some of its limitations?

Like many cellos, it has a wolf tone around E3-F3, but I do have a wolf-tone damper that looks a little like a beauty spot, which I love.

If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if you sat down for tea (or any beverage of your choice)?

We would sit down for sparkling elderflower with slices of lemon, and he would say: “Thank you for a lifetime of great adventures and for trusting me with your musical world. It has been a joy, growing and traveling with you, and I look forward to more incredible music making and performances ahead.”

Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Gear

Strings: Larsen Soloist A and D; Pirastro Permanent G and C

Bows: Modern silver-mounted cello bow by Lothar Seifert

Case: Accord ultralight in graphite black

Rosin: Hidersine and Pirastro (interchangeably)

Additional Gear: DPA 4099 mic; Schertler DYN C P48 mic; Boss RC-600 looper; Roland SPD::One Kick percussion pad