The harp is one of the oldest and most widespread musical instruments in the world. It has a long and rich history that spans across continents and cultures. In this article, we will explore the origins and evolution of the harp in African and African American music, from ancient times to the present day.
The harp in Africa
The harp is believed to have originated in Asia, Africa, and Europe around 3000 BCE . The earliest harps were arched or bow-shaped, with strings running at an angle to a curved soundboard. These harps were played vertically, with the fingers of both hands plucking the strings. Some examples of arched harps are the chang of Persia, the konghou of China, and the ngoni of West Africa.
Another type of harp that developed in Africa is the angular harp, which has a soundbox that forms a right angle with the neck. These harps were played horizontally, with a plectrum or a finger plucking the strings. Some examples of angular harps are the ennanga of Uganda, the kinde of Ethiopia, and the simsimiyya of Egypt.
The harp in African American music
The harp was introduced to America by African slaves who brought their musical traditions and instruments with them. One of these instruments was the banjo, which is derived from the halam and the kora, two West African plucked lutes that resemble arched harps. The banjo was originally made from a gourd or a wooden frame covered with animal skin, with a long neck and four or five strings. The banjo became a popular instrument among African Americans, especially in folk music, blues, jazz, and country.
Another instrument that influenced African American music was the pedal harp, which is a type of frame harp that has a complex mechanism that allows for chromatic tuning. The pedal harp was developed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and was mainly used in classical music. However, some African American musicians adopted the pedal harp and incorporated it into their genres, such as gospel, soul, funk, and hip hop. Some notable examples are Alice Coltrane, Dorothy Ashby, Casper Reardon, and Ahya Simone.
The harp today
The harp continues to be a versatile and expressive instrument that can be found in various musical styles and settings. It can be played solo or in ensembles, acoustic or electric, traditional or modern. It can also be used as a symbol of cultural identity and heritage, as well as a tool for social change and empowerment. The harp is not only a musical instrument but also a reflection of human history and creativity.