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Ranky Tanky releases new album 'Good Time' spreading Gullah culture beyond Charleston

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Gullah culture in the Lowcountry may be most obvious to the greater population in the expression of culinary art, from Bertha's Kitchen to Nana's Seafood and Soul with their traditional hoppin' john, chitterlings and collard greens. 

But for one particular group of local musicians, who has recently garnered international attention and been featured on NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross and "The Today Show," the culture runs far deeper than taste buds. 

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For Ranky Tanky's trumpeter Charlton Singleton and drummer Quentin Baxter, it runs in the family. Both are descendants of the Lowcountry Gullah community, a distinctive group of African Americans from coastal regions in South Carolina and Georgia who developed their own Geechee language and culture.

Singleton says a majority of the traditional tunes, field recordings and Gullah lullabies that Ranky Tanky has selected to pull from the archives, rearrange and perform, he grew up with as a little boy, in familiar hums from his relatives in Mount Pleasant's Ten Mile neighborhood or among the pews at Holy City AME churches. Those songs were passed down orally, like a game of telephone, he says.

On Ranky Tanky's new album "Good Time," which is out now, there are a variety of these old classics revamped with a modern twist. Ranky Tanky combines elements of gospel, soul and jazz rhythms and sounds.

"For a lot of the traditional Gullah songs, we have to remember that almost all of these songs' instrumentation is a voice, a hand clap and stomping of the feet and that’s it," Singleton says. "Naturally when you add a horn, electric guitar and bass, that’s going to change it."

In addition to traditional Gullah tunes such as call-and-response "Shoo Lie Loo" and "Green Sally," the new album also features original songs, such as "Freedom" and "Let Me Be." 

"Let Me Be," like many of the traditional and original Gullah songs Ranky Tanky performs, features many nature elements specific to the South Carolina coast. 

"Let me be like a Simmon tree / Grounded by the earth / Let me be like a cat-paw breeze / Whispered into birth," Parler sings, referencing the tree native to the Eastern Seaboard and a light wind that might stir a ripple in the water. 

"A lot of those songs were born out of us messing around at soundcheck and jamming," Singleton says. "It’s kind of like the old practice in church at historically black denominations of what we call raising up a song, where you start singing what's on your heart at that moment."

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Ranky Tanky includes (from left) Charlton Singleton, Clay Ross, Quiana Parler, Quentin Baxter and Kevin Hamilton. Provided/Sully Sullivan/Garden & Gun

Singer Quiana Parler and guitarist and singer Clay Ross are typically the lyrical poets of the band. Ross was the one who originally came up with the concept of Ranky Tanky around three years ago. Parler says that, just like the unique music of New Orleans, Jamaica and Cameroon, Charleston has a sound that needed to be shared. Ross recognized that. 

"He said, 'Why not do the sound of the Lowcountry in South Carolina?'" Parler recalls. "It’s a very unique sound and an important community to American culture, so we thought, 'Why not? Let’s give it a shot.'"

Parler cites other local projects, such as Ann Caldwell and the Plantation Singers, as similar yet more traditional takes on Gullah. Ranky Tanky had the same idea, but wanted to swap out tambourines and a cappella vocals for a drum set and an electric guitar. 

"Freedom" is one of the band's most prominent universal anthems. Singleton says it's a song that can apply to many different circumstances: those seeking their release or embracing their independence.

The lyrics read: "They take our bread / They take our schools / They say that our only choice / Is to play their fool / They take our land / They take our rights / But they'll never know our power / We put up the fight." 

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Ranky Tanky incorporates Gullah traditional songs, gospel, jazz and soul into their sound. Provided/Sully Sullivan/Garden & Gun

Though the lyrics are inherently political, Singleton shrugs off the idea that Ranky Tanky is inherently a political band. He adds, with a laugh, that at one time he needed freedom from Oreo cookies, back when he was eating a full pack at a time. 

"One thing we’re really proud of is that no matter where we go, just about everybody who has been to our concerts, even abroad, is able to connect," Singleton says. "The music sort of touches everybody."

At a July concert in Germany, Parler says the crowd of thousands was still singing the encore track long after Ranky Tanky had retired to their dressing room. She says she has no doubt that some of those people had never heard of Gullah until Ranky Tanky came around. 

"We know what our goal is: to keep the Gullah culture alive not only locally but internationally," Parler says. 

It seems like the band is doing just that, and spreading the party with them on tour as well. 

Most of the tracks on "Good Time" are about just that, a good time.  At the root of it, Ranky Tanky's music is joyful, exuding the same positive spirit of the Gullah people. "Good Time" goodheartedly celebrates the little pieces of daily rural life.  

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Ranky Tanky has been touring Europe and won't be playing in Charleston until next year. In the meantime, you can listen to their new album "Good Time." Provided/Sully Sullivan/Garden & Gun

"Dog on the porch, kicking off the fleas / Chicken in the yard, scratching up peas," the fast-paced, bouncy tune hums along. 

Parler says she wanted to be singing uplifting songs each night, which is why the new album is full of fun and lighthearted singalong tracks.

"O Death" from Ranky Tanky's debut album took her to a dark place when one of her best friends died from cancer. She says it became a very hard song to sing, emotionally and mentally, because of where those lyrics would take her, and she couldn't just turn those feelings on and off. 

"I didn't want to feel like that every show we played," Parler says. "We did the complete opposite on this album."

The band's 2017 self-titled project rose on the music charts, hitting No. 1 on Billboard's jazz and contemporary album charts. The members saw their disc do that again right after their NPR and "The Today Show" appearances. 

Parler says she's waiting for this new album to do the same, bolstered by media and a growing fan base. 

Ranky Tanky won't be performing in Charleston until next year. In the meantime, they're touring Europe and the United States and sharing a piece of Charleston with them as they go. 

Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.