EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from a story in our Summer 2018 print issue “(im)migration.” You can read the whole story — and much more — in that issue, available here. And please consider supporting No Depression with a subscription for more roots music journalism, in print and online, all year long.
No Depression is thrilled to republish this excerpt in light of Ranky Tanky’s Grammy award for Best Regional Roots Music Album for their sophomore album, Good Time. For more information on the 62nd annual Grammy Awards, check out No Depression’s recap here.
The name Ranky Tanky can be loosely translated as “get funky” in Gullah (which is the name of both the dialect and the sea island people of West African descent who speak it). And that’s exactly what the band does on its eponymous first release — they add an inspired, jazzy, and playfully funky twist to the tunes and rhythms woven deep into the fabric of communities along the South Carolina and Georgia coast.
Alan Lomax, who began cataloging the music of the Gullah people in the 1960s, described the region during a speech at the 1964 Sea Island Folk Festival as “one of the heartlands of American music.” But the rhythms and dialects are of West African origin. These are songs of the African diaspora, tunes carried across the Atlantic on slave ships and sung through centuries of toil — both during slavery and afterward — music that bolstered a people intimate with longing and loss, but also ever-ready to raise up a song of praise and celebration. And centuries later, thanks to Ranky Tanky’s exuberant jazz riffs, often punctuated by the syncopated hand clapping that is signature Gullah percussion (think Praise House meets Blue Note), these songs of prayer and yearning, whimsy and rhyme that tap into ancient memories are topping Billboard’s and iTunes’ jazz charts.
The members of Ranky Tanky — singer Quiana Parler, drummer Quentin Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton, and guitarist Clay Ross — have been best friends and stalwarts of the Charleston music scene for decades. Singleton, Baxter, Hamilton, and Ross had been playing together on and off for 15 or so years as contemporary jazz quintet Gradual Lean, and Parler, an early American Idol finalist, occasionally sang with them in addition to headlining gigs with the Charleston Symphony and jazz concerts. In between, they each pursued independent projects — Ross recording Brazilian jazz, Baxter touring the globe with the likes of Rene Marie and Freddie Cole, and Singleton serving as music and artistic director of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra. Then Ross — now based in New York, but a native of the South Carolina — had an idea.
“Clay was coming at this from a pedagogical angle,” says Singleton, who, like the other African American band members, cut his musical teeth playing in church. “He’d been doing research, visiting churches on Johns Island and down to Beaufort, and when he started naming some of the tunes, it was almost like he was introducing them to us.” Both Singleton and Baxter had the same initial reaction: “Why would we want to be doing these songs?” Singleton says. “It took some coaxing to think of doing them with a different interpretation. When something is so imbedded in the community, you really don’t mess with it.”
But mess they did, and the end result not only brings these friends back together for a musical homecoming, it also brings the Gullah descendants among them back to their musical roots and heritage, with each Ranky Tanky member adding their individual musical influences as well. Ross brings a Brazilian jazz flair; Parler unleashes a “gumbo” of pop, soul, R&B, and gospel; and Singleton, Hamilton, and Baxter lean on their classic jazz fundamentals and expansive versatility. Witness the deceptive simplicity of “Knee Bone,” which Baxter, as producer, takes from Parler’s bare-boned vocal intro to a full-blown jazz instrumental and back again. “Which is basically how we played in church,” Baxter says. “After prayer someone would start singing a cappella, and it’d take time for us to get back from the altar to our instruments, so then all of a sudden the music comes in. Plus this was a smart way to feature Quiana, because she’s the star — there’s just no way of getting around that,” he laughs.
Parler, whose smile is as big as her voice, continues, “I feel like I’m at home and can be honest with this music — it’s uplifting and positive. …And to be on this journey with these guys I’ve known these guys for so long is a blessing.”