CARRYING ON THE GULLAH TRADITION

BY BILL THOMPSON

Spirited and diverse, the South Carolina Sea Islands’ musical masala of West African rhythms, gospel, children’s rhymes and dance tunes come together with a contemporary spin in the band Ranky Tanky, named after the Gullah phrase meaning “work it” or “get funky”!

Ranky Tanky is Charlton Singleton (trumpet), Quentin Baxter (percussion), Clay Ross (guitar), Kevin Hamilton (upright bass) and Quiana Parler (vocals). The first four assembled straight out of college in 1998 to form The Gradual Lean, playing a series of impromptu gigs before pursuing other avenues.

They came together again in 2016 with a distinctively fresh sound, employing a smorgasbord of material, a wealth of versatility and a commitment to helping sustain and transmit Gullah culture.

“We’re celebrating the music of people who didn’t always get a chance to celebrate,” says Singleton, late of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra (CJO). “It’s inspirational. It’s educational at times. And we are not going to get away from paying homage to the roots of this music or tarnish the legacy of it.”

What separates the quintet’s work from traditional Gullah folk songs and games— marked by a cappella vocals, hand clapping and the stomping of feet—is the addition of instruments. Ranky Tanky also is writing its own compositions, though these and new arrangements are done in the style of the original Gullah forms.

For the uninitiated, Gullah (“a people blessed by God”) culture is a meld of West African dialects, rhythms and musical traditions marinated in Sea Island life and later augmented by British colonial influences.

Though each member of the quintet is a native of the state, they never conceived themselves as a strictly local band. Ranky Tanky enjoys wide-ranging play dates on both coasts and points in between, including such seemingly unlikely venues as Nebraska (where one befuddled impresario asked if their music was “Goulash”).

“None of us anticipated we would get as much traction as we have, this soon,” says Singleton, who insists his amicable departure from the CJO had nothing to do with Ranky Tanky. “We all had other things that we were doing, as well. We were thinking of maybe getting 10 gigs a year as a group, and it turned into close to 50 that first year.”

Ranky Tanky also performed throughout Europe last summer, playing to full houses.

“It’s all been a tremendous word-of-mouth, snowball effect. Being on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air (NPR) broadcast with five million listeners didn’t hurt,” continues Singleton.

Nor did having its 2017 debut album, Ranky Tanky, soar to the top of the Billboard jazz charts. A new album is in the works, with an anticipated completion date in May.

Ross credits the African-American folk singer Bessie Jones as a chief influence on the band, owing to the extensive recording and documentation of songs and rhymes in her 1987 book, Step It Down, co-authored with Bess Lomax Hawes. Also influential were the field recordings and books by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

Singleton believes that the addition of Parler’s vocals has been, pardon the expression, instrumental.

“She is so polished, at a whole other level of musicality than Clay is or I am as a singer,” Singleton says. “She brings the vocal element to Ranky Tanky with power and grace.”

With so much left to explore and adapt, the quintet sees this as a long-term gig. They’ve known each other for some time and have performed together in various combinations under various names over the past two decades.

“But we’re young as Ranky Tanky, having played together for only a couple of years,” says Singleton. “We’re still new.”

Bill Thompson is the author of the forthcoming book Why Travel?