How do you get from a start-up musical experiment with a Gullah theme to No. 1 on the Billboard jazz charts? For the Charleston-based band Ranky Tanky, which makes its Spoleto Festival USA debut on Saturday, it all started with 226 generous fans.
When the local band wanted to bring its updated South Carolina Gullah sound to a larger audience, it didn’t have a record deal, but it did have Kickstarter. In October 2016, it crowdsourced a total of $14,069 from those supporters, whose pledges of $10 and up earned them a range of rewards, from a gracious “Thank You” to a private concert.
“For the most part, it funded the album,” Ranky Tanky trumpeter Charlton Singleton said of the Kickstarter campaign. And without the album, the band’s West African-influenced music likely would have remained local.
Ranky Tanky is a Gullah iteration of the late-1990s College of Charleston jazz quartet Gradual Lean. In both bands: Singleton, drummer Quentin Baxter, guitarist Clay Ross and bass player Kevin Hamilton.
Adding singer Quiana Parler was the masterstroke. Parler, a Harleyville native, “American Idol” alumna and party band leader, often has appeared with the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and various tribute bands assembled by Singleton.
In Ranky Tanky she shines bright, providing soulful, stirring renditions of tunes such as the classic American folk song “O Death” and the lilting lullaby “Go to Sleep.”
She might be the lead singer, but Parler is not the only singer. Singleton and Ross contribute vocals. Baxter and Hamilton furnish that syncopated Gullah beat. Interesting factoid: When Baxter is forced to miss a gig because of previous commitments with artists such as Rene Marie and Freddy Cole, his nephew Calvin Baxter takes control of the kit.
“Looking at this music gives us strength to keep going, and sharing our music from the heart has its healing qualities in a pure and symbolic way,” Ross said.
Gullah culture was forged in the crucible of American slavery. Along the southeastern rice coast, extending from northern Florida to southern North Carolina, black people managed to retain some of their West African heritage, combining it with what they learned here. An English creole language resulted, along with a dynamic, often mournful musical style that prioritized rhythm and singing.
The band’s self-titled 2017 debut album consists entirely of traditional Gullah songs, albeit filtered through a mixture of gospel, jazz, blues, folk and R&B.. Religious elements come through in songs such as “Join the Band,” with its familiar reference to music in the church.
“Gullah was very much present when we were growing up in church,” Singleton said. “There were certain things that you learned from watching our grandparents and our grand aunts and uncles, who probably learned it from the praise house or from someone else in their family.”
Singleton, who is fluent in Gullah and can chart a direct lineage of Gullah descendants, said he uses Ranky Tanky shows to educate patrons about this music and its heritage.
“We talk about just what exactly the Gullah community is and how we interpret themes from the Gullah community to present our music,” he said.
Ranky Tanky may be the first band to bring the Gullah sound to the top of the Billboard charts, but it’s hardly the first local band to draw on this history. South Carolina State University music lab coordinator Roland Hayes said the sound also can be heard in one of Charleston’s earliest jazz bands, the Jenkins Orphanage Band.
“If you look at the history,” Hayes said of the Jenkins band, “you'll find (that some) of these musicians played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington and had illustrious careers, all coming out of Charleston.”
In this way they introduced the Gullah sound to mainstream jazz.
Ranky Tanky continues to search for ways to link tradition and innovation. The group now is working on more music, including some originals, so Spoleto Festival patrons likely will hear a couple of new tunes in the Cistern Yard, under a Gullah moon.
“You would be amazed by the synergy that’s happening now,” Ross said. “At the end of the day, we are all big fans of each other, and we are having a party.”
Andrea Henderson is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.