When Clay Ross, all excited about the idea of forming a band, brought a few Gullah songs to his mates, drummer Quentin Baxter and trumpet player Charlton Singleton listened politely, acknowledged their colleague’s zeal over his “discovery,” then looked at each other and smiled.
“Quentin and I are, like, ‘OK, I’ve been playing and singing that since I was 2, man,’” Singleton said, recalling that moment. But Ross had put a twist on the tunes. “There was certainly a way that Clay presented it that was a lot different from the way we grew up hearing it,” Singleton added.
Baxter betrayed a note of concern.
“He got an earful from me,” Baxter said. “This (music) had to be done with justice, you’ve got to know what it means. ... I’m not interested in dressing up in plantation clothes to make a point. This is about having very contemporary arrangements of songs that celebrate a culture that didn’t used to be able to celebrate itself.”
No group of musicians is better able to pull it off.
“It’s all Gullah, Gullah with our interpretations, four people who’ve sort of lived it, and one guy who’s immersed himself in it,” Singleton said. “We’ve all played together for a long time in some form or fashion and know each other very well, so it made it really easy.”
Ranky Tanky is the name of the band. It means, more or less, “work it” or “get funky” in Gullah. It is a new iteration of an older band, Gradual Lean, that included Ross, Singleton, Baxter and bassist Kevin Hamilton. (Gradual Lean still performs, though Lee Barbour replaced Ross on guitar several years ago.) When Baxter is unavailable because of touring obligations with other bands (he plays with Rene Marie and Freddy Cole, among others), his nephew Calvin Baxter steps in.
The Ranky Tanky project cried out for a strong singer. Naturally, the boys called Quiana Parler, a popular Lowcountry singer with a big, soulful voice.
The band will make its official Lowcountry debut at the Low Tide Social, 6 p.m. Friday, April 21, at Riverfront Park in North Charleston. The event, which includes a Lowcountry boil and libations, will serve as the kickoff of the High Water Festival. Ranky Tanky will share the stage with Lucinda Williams and Langhorne Slim. Tickets are $65 and available via Ticketmaster.
It took a while for the concept to take hold, and bandmates expected Ranky Tanky would cook on a slow simmer, touring only occasionally and leaving plenty of time for these busy professional musicians to pursue several other projects and fulfill their many musical commitments.
But starting late last year, the group took off suddenly. They performed in Washington State, South Dakota and Nebraska, where they were received very well. At one gig, the master of ceremonies, about to make his introduction on stage, approached Singleton to make sure he had the basic information straight.
“So this is goulash music?” he asked.
“Uh, just say Ranky Tanky, and I’ll handle it from there,” Singleton replied.
Then they played a January showcase at New York City's Webster Hall called Globalfest and got some notice, followed by some offers. Everywhere they went, audiences adored the set. The tunes were spirituals and lullabies and dance numbers and church music, yet original at the same time.
“Unless you’ve lived here, or unless you’re a scholar of African-American studies, few outside the Southeast really know about Gullah,” Singleton said.
So the members of the band consider themselves “protectors of the tradition” who are raising awareness. That Rolling Stones song, “You Gotta Move”? Gullah. That swing in the Count Basie Band, propelled by Freddie Green’s guitar? Gullah. That syncopated rhythm of drummer Rufus “Speedy” Jones, who played with Basie, Duke Ellington and Maynard Ferguson? Gullah. All those work songs and game songs and praise songs, shouts and spirituals? Gullah.
“We play songs that we played when we were kids,” Baxter said of Ranky Tanky. “I’m playing rhythms from when I grew up, rhythms named for specific people.”
Singleton, too, recounts how his grandfather sang “Watch That Star” when he was “seeking” — a coming-of-age ritual that pays tribute to one’s ancestors — and continued to sing the song when Singleton was a child.
While Gullah songs are familiar to many African-Americans up and down the Southeast coast, each might be performed differently depending on community habits.
“It’s going to be different everywhere — downtown, McClellanville, Awendaw, Round O, Georgetown, Beaufort.” That’s because the songs, like most other cultural identifiers, have been handed down from generation to generation though an oral tradition, Singleton said.
So it took a little effort to get everyone in the band on the same page.
'We could do this'
It is perhaps an auspicious moment for Ranky Tanky. Gullah traditions are fading slowly. The Gullah people of the Georgia and Carolina sea islands are increasingly displaced by development and an influx of wealthy people seeking water views.
At the same time, the “protectors of the tradition” are becoming more vocal about a fascinating and troubling history of persistence and pride in the face of adversity.
Ask any older African-American from the Lowcountry and he will tell you that, years ago, there was not much honor in calling attention publicly to one’s Gullah heritage. Today, though, the dialect is studied and respected, the food celebrated and imitated by chefs at fancy restaurants, the artisan crafts collected in museums, the music recorded by professional players.
“I think we’re definitely at a time where we will turn some heads with these songs,” Singleton said. “And we’ll be able to enlighten some folks on things. Around here, it’s sort of like second nature to us because of where we are, but you could link this to all of the stuff (artist) Jonathan (Green) talks about, with the rice, the food, the sweetgrass.”
As the members of Ranky Tanky consulted and practiced, they strived to blend their various skills and strengths to achieve a sense of “equal ownership,” Baxter said.
Ross is the energetic hustler; Baxter the producer-arranger; Singleton the composer-arranger; Hamilton the foundation; and Parler the charismatic voice of the band.
“It took quite a while to get things off the ground,” Ross said. “It was a long process of fleshing things out and arriving at a true partnership. I’m a disciple of this culture; these are true descendants of the culture, I really defer to them on everything to guide us on the appropriate presentation.”
Ross called his old Gradual Lean bandmates “important mentors.”
“They are a foundation of my musicianship,” he said.
He left Charleston for New York City in 2005 and formed the band Matuto, which embraced Brazilian and other international influences. Working in that global music circuit, Ross noticed that no one was playing Gullah material.
“No one is representing this music of South Carolina on a global scale in this way,” he said. “I just felt we could do this.”
'An amazing feeling'
Parler, a regular on the local wedding and corporate event circuit, and an occasional guest of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and other groups, has been lured back into music venues by Singleton. She figured Ranky Tanky would involve a bunch of local gigs. She wasn’t exactly prepared to make an album and to hit the road so quickly, she said.
A Kickstarter campaign last year raised $14,000 and enabled the group to record 13 songs and make some videos. The album will be released officially on Sept. 15, but copies will be available for sale at live shows.
“When I was approached, I had no idea it would be what it is now,” Parler said. “The reception has been amazing. ... It feels good to share the culture around the world.”
Parler, 37, hails from Harleyville in northern Dorchester County. Presented with this material, she was thrust into a realm of discovery.
“Our music is a little different from what you got on the sea islands,” she said. “I was literally learning that stuff while we were filming.”
Aside for the sheer joy of performing with friends, Parler is reveling in the rich meaning of the words she sings, the layers of significance, the hidden messages, the far reach. Sometimes a simple tune — a nursery rhyme, for example — or a lyric about a missing husband, can resonate through the ages, she said.
The Ranky Tanky CD is the first recording project for which she is front and center, which is difficult to believe, especially in light of her 2003 performances on "American Idol" and a number of national stage appearances. Parler has a stunning, expressive voice, big range and fine ability to deliver with punch both ornamental runs and the simplest of melodies.
“When we perform (the music) live, to see people dancing to it, that’s an amazing feeling,” she said.
The shows on the road began with the Leaf Festival at Black Mountain, North Carolina, in October, then took the band to the northwest of the country. Part of the band’s efforts include education and outreach: Ranky Tanky performed in a Nebraska prison and at a group home in South Dakota, where no one knew anything about Gullah culture.
Next on the schedule after the Low Tide Social are shows in New York and North Carolina, followed by a multiday appearance at the Alianiat Arts Festival in Iqualuit, the capital of Canada's northernmost province of Nunavut. July takes them to the west coast for San Francisco Jazz and California Worldfest, followed by gigs in Norway, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Austria. In August, Ranky Tanky plays the Telluride Festival in Colorado. Many more gigs are scheduled after that including, rumor has it, a performance at next year's Savannah Music Festival.
“My appreciation for Charleston came while I was on tour, seeing the world,” Parler said. “There’s no place like home. It feels good to share what’s in my DNA.”