They don’t come through your TV promising to cure your ills for money. But they do claim that if you come to one of their shows or hear their music, there’ll be some healing going on.
Charleston, South Carolina’s Ranky Tanky plays the music of their ancestors, promoting and honoring their Gullah heritage. The music is often labeled as jazz, largely to the musical conversations trumpeter Charlton Singleton has with his bandmates, overlaying the West African discussion going on around him with freeform grace notes. The band had all played jazz together before deciding to stick to Gullah.
Guitarist Clay Ross was the catalyst for bringing the band together. Ross, who is white, was laughed at by his future bandmates when he broached the subject while they were in a jazz band. But his sincerity and love for the music convinced the rest to celebrate and update the music many of Ranky Tanky’s members had heard in church and at play around them all their lives.
As Singleton explains in this video, Gullah culture encompasses a chain of islands that stretch from the southern part of North Carolina’s coastline, down through South Carolina and Georgia, and into the top of Florida. The descendants of West African slaves living on those islands retained a lot of the customs, beliefs, cooking, worshiping, and language of their ancestors. “In Ranky Tanky, what we do is we interpret a lot of those songs, a lot of those kids’ games … when you see little girls and boys playing patty cake, and they’re clapping on two and four, all of those things are uniquely Gullah,” Singleton says.
“Green Sally” sounds like a chant that kids would skip rope to, some of the lyrics appropriated by Rufus Thomas for his 1965 hit “Walking The Dog.” Backed by sinister-sounding jazz, Ranky Tanky’s take drags the link back into Gullah with the lyrics: “One saw two saw ziggy zaw zo / Bobtail dominicker deedle daw do / Hail ’em scale ’em, Virgin Mary / Ike to my link Tom Buck.”
The band’s catalog consists of nursery rhymes, field songs, and spirituals, modernized to attract a younger crowd, but still staying true to their roots. “Stand By Me” is not the 1962 Ben E. King hit, but a funky-bottomed churchy plea that crossed the aisle and ran down to the cabaret to become a wailing call to worship that works in both venues.
“Beat ‘Em Down” straddles the lines between folk, gospel, soul, funk, and jazz, sounding like a bit like a soulful take on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” backed by a street-parading second line drumbeat with Singleton’s coming-back-from-the-graveyard celebratory funeral band trumpet solo supporting vocalist Quiana Parler’s vow to use her heart’s love to beat down the devils swarming around her.
The Carter Family recorded it in the 1930s, then Woody Guthrie recut the traditional folk tune “Worried Man Blues” in 1940, and others, including The Kingston Trio (1959), revamped it over the years, but nobody matches Ranky Tanky’s country/folk/funk/soul treatment, cross-cultural confusion that sounds like Parler is about to break out into yodeling while second lining.
As promised, it’ll heal you: island music that peps up the body and enriches the soul.