The harp is an instrument not commonly used in popular music, but when you hear it, its stringed melodies are extremely obvious and notable. Even more so, Black femmes playing the harp and being recognized for their musical contributions is not a common occurrence.
My most recent posts on my AfroAtonality page via Instagram address the musical contributions of Dorothy Ashby, a Black woman harpist. Through that post I began to ponder how the harp’s incorporation into popular music (especially jazz and hip-hop) came to be. Through vignettes, readers will get a peek into how Black femmes pushed and continue to drive the sonic innovations of pop through their playing of the harp.
Dorothy Ashby was trained under the tutelage of Velma Fraude at Cass Tech High in Detroit. She revolutionized how the harp was played and integrated into more popular music forms. She began as a jazz pianist playing alongside her father who was a guitarist. In the 50s, after graduating from Cass, Dorothy attended Wayne State Uni and played piano, but went back to playing harp and worked to break into Detroit’s jazz scene which wasn’t easy.
She found success as a composer, performer, writer, and bandleader. The release of her album Afro-Harping in 1968 really signaled a shift in Black consciousness and pride in the realm of music, particularly jazz. She altered the way in which the harp was played. She replicated the sound of a guitar and created a unique playing technique applicable to jazz. UDiscover Music writer, Jordannah Elizabeth, reported, “On The Rubaiyat of Dorothy Ashby, Ashby also played the koto, a 13-stringed Japanese instrument, showcasing just how far out her sound could go.” With 11 albums and now a ton of sampled works, Dorothy is heralded as the first harpist to “translate harp to bebop and jazz.””
Dorothy stated with attention to her experiences as a Black woman playing harp, “It’s been maybe a triple burden in that not a lot of women are becoming known as jazz players. There is also the connection with Black women. The audiences I was trying to reach were not interested in the harp, period – classical or otherwise – and they were certainly not interested in seeing a Black woman playing the harp.”
Listen to Dorothy’s “Soul Vibrations.”
Today, Dorothy’s music has been sampled by a multitude of artists including Flying Lotus, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Madlib, Mac Miller, The Pharcyde, Drake, Kanye West, and many others. Observing the amount of times her compositions were sampled rounds up to 159 times.
Just as Ashby received training at Cass Tech High under Velma Fraude, so did Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. Alice is known for her highly spiritual, cosmic harp and piano playing. Her first encounters with music were at the tender age of 9, playing organ and singing at Mount Olive Baptist Church. Growing up in Detroit, she would encounter jazz, classical music, blues, eventually becoming very fond of jazz.
In the latter years of the 1950s to 1960, Alice was wedded to singer Kenny “Pancho” Hagood. They would travel through Paris playing with the best jazz musicians of the time (e.g. Hazel Scott, Kenny Clarke). Eventually she met Bud Powell, who became her musical mentor, teaching her the ins and outs of bebop piano. By 1960, Alice had learned a ton, and ended up divorcing Kenny, leading her back to Detroit.
Her relationship with her husband John Coltrane, jazz legend, undeniably influenced her works, with his modal compositions and very free, adventurous performance style. However, what inspired her even more so was the spiritual journey she embarked upon following his death in 1967. When John passed, Alice was grieving heavily and met guru Swami Satchidananda. Having had a spiritual awakening, Alice dedicated her life to God’s service through her music.
Musicologist Tammy L. Kernodle wrote an article that considered not only the relationship between Alice and John + music and spirituality, but also Alice’s contribution to furthering experimentation in jazz composition. Kernodle points explicitly to Alice’s use of Middle-Eastern, Indian, and African instruments and modes in her compositions.
Alice has twenty albums, but one of my favorite tracks from her and Pharoah Sanders is below.
21st Century Black femme harpists and multi-instrumentalists:
Jess Garland, who is inspired by Ashby and Coltrane, took up piano, clarinet, and guitar playing as a youth. She would play “Lean On Me” on the piano at her grandmothers’ house. While attending Southern Methodist University, she began teaching guitar. According to a short bio,
“Today the Dallas, Texas native has opened for musicians such as Madame Gandhi at Babes Fest 2019, and Academy member Gingger Shankar for Fortress Fest Presents Modern Music Series 2018. Jess is the President and Founding Director of Swan Strings, a 501c3 non-profit organization for free music education and sound therapy services to North Texas individuals without access. She recently released her first single, “GLOW,” available now on all streaming platforms.”
Musically, Jess is an innovator in that she adds to her harp performances boss loop pedal, and delay effects. She is a strong supporter of collaboration. In a recent interview with SPARK!, Jess discusses how she incorporates her musical ventures/performances with the creativity of dancers and poets.
Below she shows off her singer-songwriter chops while performing her song “Live Again” in her Tiny Desk audition.
Similar to Jess, Ahya Simone is a multidisciplinary artist, harpist, filmmaker, and activist. Based out of Detroit, she began singing in the Black church and learned how to play harp in high school. In an video from Kresge Arts in Detroit, Ahya recalls initially not wanting to learn how to play the harp, but found that “it gave me a way to access my femininity in a safe way, in a time when it wasn’t safe.” Later, she honed her skills at Wayne State University, where she became the Principal Harpist for their Wind Symphony. All her work seeks to explore “Black identity, aesthetic, and community building.” In efforts to fulfill that commitment, Ahya is the creator, co-writer, and director of the award-wining fictional webseries “Femme Queen Chronicles.” The series chronicles the everyday life of 4 Black trans women in Detroit. Ahya is a Femme Queen which she explains as “a ballroom term for a woman with trans experience.”
Ahya’s music magically melds the sounds of soul, pop, classical, and jazz. She wondrously takes up as much space as she wants in her performances. Ahya’s feature on Kelela’s album Take Me A_Part Remixes displays this perfectly.
In a conversation with Nate Chinen of The New York Times, Brandee Younger stated, “There’s a stigma out there that you’re not a serious player unless you’re performing classical music.” Being a harpist with outstanding courage and skill, she has never let that stigma hinder her ability to play in various places and across a multitude of genres. Her musical journey, in part, began with her flipping through an issue of the Harp Column magazine where she found a picture of Dorothy Ashby, who was listed as an influential harpist of the 20th century.
The years following that revelatory moment, Ms. Younger studied harp as a teenager in Hempstead, NY and attended Hartt School of Music in West Hartford, Connecticut. She found great mentors in the faculty of the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz and African American Studies. After earning her Bachelor’s in Harp Performance and Music Business, she received a Master of Music degree from NYU Steinhardt.
Shaped by Ashby and Coltrane, Ms. Younger carries their sounds and legacies into her most recent album Soul Awakening (2019), which is what Marcus J. Moore of Bandcamp claims is a “meditative set of songs completed in 2013, but just now seeing the light of day.” The 44-minute album certainly will remind folks of Ashby’s Afro-Harping and Coltrane’s Journey to Satchidananda, but make no mistake, her careful, bold, and caring harp strums are her own. That fact makes her highly sought after. Ms. Younger has played alongside musicians across (and outside) genres: Ravi Coltrane, Moses Sumney, Laura Mvula, Cassie, Salaam Remi, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Bilal, Lakecia Benjamin, and many others. While watching Beyoncé’s Homecoming one will hear Ms. Younger’s original composition “Hortense.”
Listen to the track “Love’s Prayer” from Soul Awakening. Follow her on Instagram @Harpista
I first heard about Madison via Instagram. I immediately thought, “who is this goddess?” *cackles* All of my initial queries aside, Instagram certainly knew about Madison and the simply stunning covers she performs. With natural light immersing the D.C. native’s room, viewers are transported to a state of nostalgia and delight. She takes well-known R&B hits of today and yesteryear, and gracefully plays them. Sometimes she’ll test her viewers’ ears, asking them to name what melody she is playing.
Madison began playing harp in 2001 and since then garnered a degree in Harp Performance from Carnegie Mellon University. She shared in an interview with Christina Calloway that, “I aim to break boundaries and reshape society’s image of what a harpist looks and sounds like,” Madison said. “I want to advance the notion that Black women are excellent artists capable of mastering any skill and achieving any dream.” With such a powerful mission Madison also wants to ensure that Black youth gain exposure to playing the harp.
Watch Madison play H.E.R.’s “Focus”
This certainly is not the full history, or even an account for every Black femme who plays harp, but this shows that Black femmes are out here killing it on the harp, with or without the approval of others; within and outside of varying genres and musical traditions. Their contributions, voices, and strums in popular music must be heard, known, and celebrated in popular music history. Stayed tuned for part two!
UDiscover Music. “Dorothy Ashby Pioneering Jazz Harpist” by Jordannah Elizabeth
SPARK! YouTube Page. “SPARK!TV CREATIVE PROFILES: Jess Garland of Swan Strings”
Ahya Simone’s Website: https://ahyasimone.live/
Kregse Arts in Detroit. 2018 Music and Film Fellow. http://www.kresgeartsindetroit.org/portfolio-posts/ahya-simone
Alice Coltrane’s Website: alicecoltrane.com
“Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Alice Coltrane and the Redefining of the Jazz-Avante Garde” by Tammy L. Kernodle
“The Brandee Younger Quartet,” https://www.kennedy-center.org/artists/b/bo-bz/the-brandee-younger-quartet/
“Brandee Younger, a Harpist Finding Her Way to Jazz” in the New York Times by Nate Chinen.February 29, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/01/arts/music/brandee-younger-a-harpist-finding-her-way-to-jazz.html
“Music Artist Faculty: Brandee Younger at NYU,” https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/people/brandee-younger
“Harpist Brandee Younger is Ready for Her Close-Up” by Marcus J. Moore of Bandcamp. https://daily.bandcamp.com/features/harpist-brandee-soul-awakening-interview
“This Harpist Is Black Girl Magic Covering These Well-Known Bops!” by Christina Calloway of The Shade Room