JOHNSON CITY (Sept. 20, 2017) – The Gullah culture, along the coasts and islands of South Carolina and Georgia, has a colorful heritage of language, handicrafts, Lowcountry cuisine and heartfelt music dating back to the 1600s, when West Africans were brought to the southern coastal areas to cultivate rice, a crop they were expert in growing.
Ranky Tanky, which means “work it” or “get funky” in Gullah, is a new concoction of longtime musicians from South Carolina and its Lowcountry, with a mission to spread Gullah music worldwide through recordings, video, performances and educational outreach. They call it “sustaining a true heartland of American music.”
Ranky Tanky’s Lowcountry debut this year has been followed by a tour of the U.S., Canada and Europe, and East Tennessee State University is on the band’s schedule for Sunday, Oct. 1, at 6 p.m. in the D.P. Culp University Center’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium. The ETSU Jazz Collective, comprised of student musicians in the Jazz Studies program, will open the show, which is in conjunction with the 2017 Umoja Festival.
This quintet, based in Charleston, South Carolina, performs the timeless music of Gullah culture, from playful game songs to ecstatic shouts, from heartbreaking spirituals to delicate lullabies, with influences of jazz, blues, gospel and folk music. Members of Ranky Tanky are drummer Quentin Baxter, trumpet player/vocalist Charlton Singleton, guitarist/vocalist Clay Ross, bassist Kevin Hamilton and vocalist Quiana Parler.
Ross, Singleton, Baxter and Hamilton began performing together in 1998 as Gradual Lean, a Charleston jazz quartet. Since then, their paths have converged and diverged and now have come back together.
“Clay came up with this new project centered around the Gullah culture,” Singleton says. “Now, Quentin and I basically grew up immersed in it, being from the Lowcountry, Kevin as well. Clay, though, is from Anderson, South Carolina. So, when Clay first started talking about doing this project, he would say, ‘Listen to this song,’ and he was so excited about it. We would look at him and go, ‘Oh, yeah, that song’ ... ‘Yeah, I have been listening to that song since I was probably 3.’
“As musicians that have studied a lot of different styles of music and performed and toured with a number of different groups, the interpretation we bring to this traditional music is something that is unique.”
Singleton is the artistic director and conductor of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, the city’s resident big band, while Baxter is a Grammy-nominated musician and producer, co-principal of Charleston Jazz Initiative and adjunct professor of Jazz Studies at the College of Charleston. Hamilton has performed with ensembles and artists including the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, Houston Person, Gregory Hines and Rene Marie and holds a degree in music theory from College of Charleston.
Parler, who grew up about 50 miles from the South Carolina coast in Harleyville, was a top contestant on “American Idol” in 2003 and has toured and performed with Miranda Lambert and fellow “American Idol” alumni Clay Aiken, Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard. In addition to touring with Ranky Tanky, Ross performs worldwide with his New York City-based band, Matuto.
While traveling and playing “global music” with Matuto, Ross noticed that “no one (was) representing this music of South Carolina on a global scale in this way,” he told the Charleston Post and Courier. “I just felt we could do this.”
Baxter, Hamilton and Singleton, Ross’ musical friends and mentors, agreed that the time might be right, but that Ranky Tanky needed to mix traditional Gullah with a jazzy contemporary funk. “I’m not interested in dressing up in plantation clothes to make a point,” says in Charleston Scene. “This is about having very contemporary arrangements of songs that celebrate a culture that didn’t used to be able to celebrate itself.”
The cultural impact of the Gullah music on American music “is undeniable,” the band says on its Kickstarter page, yet, “unless you’ve lived here, or you’re a scholar of African-American studies, few outside the Southeast really know about Gullah,” Singleton says. “We were in South Dakota and talking with a man and he said, ‘I want to get everything straight. Your music is called goulash?’ and I said, ‘No, sir. That’s a food.’”
Ranky Tanky’s set list intertwines research including early field recordings of such artists as Bessie Jones, John Davis and Laura Rivers; band members’ memories of growing up in the Lowcountry hearing its oral traditional music; the syncopation and swing of legends like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Maynard Ferguson; and modern jazz, blues and folk – all with a sense of playfulness, emotion and often spiritual intensity.
The reception from audiences around the world, Singleton says, has been “fabulous.”
“It feels good to share the culture around the world,” says Parler. “There’s no place like home. It feels good to share what’s in my DNA.”
The band’s combination of upbeat sense of fun and rich cultural experience attracted Mary B. Martin School of the Arts Director Anita DeAngelis to Ranky Tanky.
“We tend to think of the South as one culture when it really isn’t,” she says. “As a visual artist, I’ve learned about several artists who are following a visual arts tradition that comes out of the Gullah culture, and the influence is powerful. Their music is equally rich, and we are pleased to bring it to our area.”
Tickets for the Oct. 1 performance at ETSU are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors and $5 for students.
For tickets or more information, call the Martin School of the Arts at 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit www.etsu.edu/martin. For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346. For more on Ranky Tanky, visit http://rankytanky.com.