The words "professional harpist" may not readily conjure up Black faces, but Dr. Ashley Jackson is determined to change that. The musician and scholar blends the boundaries between musical genres. As heard on her new album Ennanga, she plays music rooted in the traditions of Black America and other musical styles on the ancient stringed musical instrument.

Jackson also brings her music to the stage. Her latest curation, Take Me to the Water, which premiered at Lincoln Center in New York City, is an immersive audio experience that brings together themes from African mythology, spiritual tradition and the transportive, magical nature of water. Backed by a string ensemble and driven by Jackson's soulful harp solos, Take Me to the Water celebrates Black lyrical heritage with music by Margaret Bonds, Alice Coltrane and Nina Simone.

Jackson shares more about her craft and her new album and explains why more Black musicians should consider learning the harp.

EBONY: What an incredible instrument! Why did you decide to take up the harp?

Ashley Jackson: My first piano teacher recognized that at a young age, I had an insatiable curiosity for all things music. One way to explore that curiosity is to try new instruments. She recommended the harp, not only because of its similarities to the piano, but also, perhaps more practically speaking, she had a niece who taught young harpists. The rest is a wonderful history.

How are you reinterpreting the classical sound of the harp into modern-day music?

Every artist expresses their personal experience. The stories that are unique to my life and where I come from are what I’m sharing with an audience when I perform. My goal is to make my interpretation and the sound of anything I play as unique and personal as my shadow or thumbprint. When we focus less on divisions between the artificially-defined genres of music and more on the connections between the music itself and the individuals who write it, the resulting soundscape is rich and varied. This is what drives me as a performer.

Tell us about your new album; what type of music will we hear and what is the message behind it?

Inspired by my musical heritage, Ennanga pays homage to the diversity of American music by exploring the musical and spiritual connections between various forms of America’s musical expression. While Ennanga celebrates the impact of West African traditions and the centrality of the African American spiritual to the history of American music, it also highlights the artistry of Black composers who have consistently redefined our musical landscape. The album features solo spiritual arrangements by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, contemporary jazz tunes by Alice Coltrane and fellow harpist Brandee Younger, as well as Ennanga, a chamber work written by African American composer William Grant Still. For this piece, and Coltrane’s Prema, I am joined by members from my musical family, The Harlem Chamber Players.

While Ennanga is technically considered a solo classical album, it features all kinds of music, from spirituals to classical to jazz. These kinds of juxtapositions remain unique in my field but are reflective of my equally-varied musical upbringing.

How challenging is it to learn to play the harp and how long have you been playing?

I’ve been playing this magical instrument for 20 years. We have 47 strings and seven pedals, so you can imagine how we stay busy in the practice room. What I love about the harp is that whatever you put into the instrument, it gives it right back to you and more.

What do you say to people who can't envision a Black woman playing the harp? Any encouraging words for future Black harpists?

There are plenty of us out here and we’re playing in a variety of styles. The harp is one of the oldest instruments in the world. While it exists in many cultures, its roots are African. Not only have there always been Black harpists, but we were also the first ones. As Black harpists, we are standing on the shoulders of the African griots, the storytellers who came before us.