The Long Way Home: Ranky Tanky gives traditional Gullah tunes new life
by Stephanie Hunt
Beyond the constant whoosh of waves, deep within the scruffy tangle of maritime forest, above the high-pitched osprey cry, cackles of gulls, and hum of too many damn mosquitoes, the distant echoes of Capers Island’s former Gullah inhabitants still reverberate. On the tiny undeveloped sea island north of Charleston, South Carolina, ghostly refrains of songs like “Watch that Star” pierce the night’s obsidian sky.
“That was Big Daddy’s song,” says trumpeter Charlton Singleton, speaking of his grandfather, who was born on Capers in 1892 and lived among other formerly enslaved Africans until an approaching hurricane sent them in search of higher ground. Today, Singleton and his longtime friends and bandmates — singer Quiana Parler, drummer Quentin Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton, and guitarist Clay Ross — are watching their own star rise as their band Ranky Tanky delivers inspired, jazz-infused renditions of classics like Big Daddy’s favorite, among other traditional Gullah songs.
“These are tunes we grew up with,” says Singleton, whose family still lives in the rural Ten Mile community (10 miles from the Cooper River that divides Charleston from Mount Pleasant and points east) where Big Daddy’s family sought refuge from the storm. In fact these songs — a mix of nursery rhymes, children’s games, and spirituals — were so familiar to him and Baxter (also a Charleston native of Gullah descent) that when Ross, the band’s only white member, asked if they knew some of the tunes he’d discovered while listening to old field recordings, they just looked at each other and laughed.
“Of course,” they told him. “We’ve been singing them all our lives.” Only not like Ranky Tanky does.
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.
A Double Homecoming
The members of Ranky Tanky have been best friends and stalwarts of the Charleston music scene for decades — with Singleton, Baxter, Hamilton, and Ross playing together on and off for 15 or so years as contemporary jazz quintet Gradual Lean, and Parler, an early American Idol finalist, occasionally singing with them as well as headlining gigs from weddings to 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 upstate, 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.
The album’s 13 tracks, including the title track, “Ranky Tanky” (basically a kids’ game jived into hip-hop-meets-Satchmo), resonate with a primal familiarity, yet like the hurricane that ran Big Daddy and his family to the mainland, these iterations transport us to higher ground, thanks in large part to Parler’s potent opera-trained, blues-embellished vocals. Listening to her let loose on “O Death” and “Been in the Storm” is like having Category 5 winds ravage your soul.
“I feel like I’m at home and can be honest with this music — it’s uplifting and positive,” says Parler, whose smile is as big as her voice. “And to be on this journey with these guys I’ve known these guys for so long is a blessing.”
The irony that it was the white guy in the group who came up with the idea of revisiting this traditional Gullah trove doesn’t escape the others. “I guess it took an outside perspective to see it in a fresh way,” says Singleton. Ross and the others, though, never imagined Ranky Tanky would take off. “I just saw an opportunity to share something very innate and organic to these guys with the rest of the world,” Ross says. “This music is unspoiled; it doesn’t need to be overthought or overcomplicated. We just need to be ourselves and bring our best to it.”
The band’s initial plan was for Ranky Tanky to be a side gig, with a goal of 15 shows their first year (they played 35). And 2018 has them on the road nearly full-time, including shows at Mountain Stage and the Savannah Music Festival. Plus, they’ve already taken Gullah music all the way to Norway (where someone confused it with goulash) and back home again, headlining the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston in June 2018. “I’m bringing everything I’ve learned in jazz and music along way to fully understand the music I grew up with in church,” says Baxter. “It’s full circle for me.”