Acclaimed South Carolina quintet Ranky Tanky lift spirits as they exalt Gullah culture

By Bliss Bowen

Ranky Tanky traces
its sound to church music
and the coastal South

Listen to Charleston, South Carolina-based quintet Ranky Tanky perform traditional songs like “Knee Bone” or “Turtle Dove,” and you’ll almost certainly be struck by the music’s rhythmic joie de vivre. The playful tune that gave the band their name came from a children’s game.

“Have you ever seen two little girls playing pattycake?” asks trumpeter Charlton Singleton. “Put that image in your mind. Now [singing in nursery rhyme cadence]: ‘Old lady come from Booster/ Had two hens and a rooster/ The rooster died/ The old lady cried/ Now she don’t eat eggs like she used to.’ And then, ‘Pain in my hand, ranky tanky/ Pain in my leg, ranky tanky’ … Every time you say ‘ranky tanky,’ whatever part of your body you said before that, you shake it to get rid of the pain. Thus ‘ranky tanky’ in the Gullah community loosely means to work it or get funky with it.”

“Get funky with it” means something else entirely when divorced from that context, Singleton acknowledges with a laugh. But “Ranky Tanky” illustrates how rooted their music is in Gullah culture.

Descendants of West Africans who were enslaved in pre-Civil War America, the Gullah were sufficiently isolated to develop identifiable traditions and dialect where they settled in the coastal plains and sea islands of North and South Carolina and Georgia. (Gullah language is sometimes called “Sea Island Creole.”)

Folk standards “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” have Gullah origins. George and Ira Gershwin’s 1935 folk opera “Porgy & Bess” is set in Gullah Low Country; so are Zora Neal Hurston’s 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and Julie Dash’s 1991 film “Daughters of the Dust.” Although corporate entities have claimed much of the coastal area for tourists, numerous small towns and little islands retain their earthier distinction.

Singleton, drummer/percussionist Quentin Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton, vocalist Quiana Parler and guitarist Clay Ross have embraced that complex heritage and infused Gullah spirituals, lullabies, laments, love songs and work songs with jazz, gospel, soul and a zestiness arising from cultural kinship. Ross is from Anderson, four hours away, and didn’t start playing guitar until age 15, but the others grew up in musical clans in Charleston’s Gullah community; music was like a disciplining life force.

“Quentin started playing drums probably when he learned to walk,” recalls Singleton, who took to piano at age 3. “Quiana’s first professional gig … 9. Everybody had music going at a young age.”

The four men first played together in a jazz quartet fresh out of college, in 1998; when forming Ranky Tanky in 2016 they reached out to Parler, who’s sung with Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5. Within months of releasing their self-titled debut album in October 2017, it was sitting atop Billboard’s jazz charts.

Their goal onstage, Singleton says, is to make audiences feel “better than they did when they walked into the concert.”

And community, he affirms, is the essence of Ranky Tanky’s message: “It’s all from the Gullah community. We’re all descendants of the Gullah community, and at least for Quentin and I, growing up in church, and with the songs that we heard from our parents, aunts and uncles, our grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents — those were songs sung by their parents and their parents’ parents, and their parents’ parents, so that takes it actually to those barrier islands from the Gullah Geechee Corridor. … Those songs and the message are universal.”

Awareness of that heritage can’t help but affect their performance: “There are times Quentin and myself are like, ‘No, no, no, we can’t do it that way. That’s not how Big Daddy would have sung it in church.’”

Church in Gullah culture, he says, is huge.

“Huge,” he repeats. “Remember, the one constant is faith. That’s still a constant, solid rock, if you will, in the community,” just as it is in non-Gullah communities, “African-American or Caucasian or whatever. They can all relate.”

Ranky Tanky’s new single “Freedom” taps into that faith with a stirring chorus and forward-looking resolve (“They take our land/ They take our rights/ But they’ll never know our power/ We’ll keep up the fight/ We want Freedom”). It’s one of several original songs from their sophomore album “Good Time,” due in August, which will also feature reworked traditionals like the title track — a song heard as a boy by Singleton, who compares their arrangement to “a party at church.” He cites their “coastal” Gullah reworking of the Springsteen-popularized “Pay Me My Money Down” as a good example of Ranky Tanky’s essence.

“The way we’ve done it with that Gullah heartbeat that’s the driving rhythm, it makes it a lot different from other versions. … That’s not better or anything. But that’s part of Ranky Tanky arranging a song in the spirit of the Gullah.”

Ranky Tanky perform at 7:30 p.m. Sunday (April 7) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $40 to $70. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit rankytanky.com.

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