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Fresh & Funky

Fresh & Funky
March 2017
Ranky Tanky aims to share its contemporary expression of Gullah music ’round the globe

Ranky Tanky’s (left to right) Charlton Singleton, Clay Ross, Quiana Parler, Quentin Baxter, and Kevin Hamilton

On January 8, four veteran Lowcountry artists­­—plus Calvin Baxter sitting in on drums for Charleston’s Quentin Baxter—took the stage at Manhattan’s Webster Hall during the highly curated globalFEST world music showcase. Later, Paste magazine recapped: “The biggest surprise of the evening...came not from Asia nor Africa. It came from South Carolina, where a quintet called Ranky Tanky has updated the Gullah tradition of the Georgia/Carolina Sea Islands with gospel vocals, jazz trumpet solos, and an R&B rhythm section.” Writer Geoffrey Himes went on to praise the band, comprised of Baxter, vocalist Quiana Parler, bassist Kevin Hamilton, guitarist and vocalist Clay Ross, and trumpeter and vocalist Charlton Singleton, for proving “that exotic music can be...unfamiliar enough to be surprising, and yet familiar enough to provoke swinging hips and nodding heads.”

Performing at New York City’s Webster Hall during globalFEST in January

And so this 10-month-old super group of Charleston-connected musicians—who’ve all performed internationally and earned accolades ranging from a Grammy nomination (Baxter) to a top-48 ranking on American Idol (Parler)—is off to a noteworthy start on its mission to share Gullah music globally.

Years in the making, the project was the brainchild of Ross, who’s spent the last decade performing around the world from a New York City base—exposure that enhanced his curiosity about the music of his home state and his appreciation for its unique qualities. “Quentin, Kevin, Charlton, and Quiana have been my mentors and musical family since the mid-’90s,” he explains, “and I was dreaming of a way for us to continue our collaboration.” Ranky Tanky, named after the Gullah term for “get funky” or “work it,” was exactly the thing.

The members cross-referenced research from folklorists such as Alan Lomax and Guy Carawan, then melded their personal experiences as Gullah descendants to shape the repertoire. Some of their songs, for example, incorporate the “Gullah clap,” which Singleton, artistic director and conductor for the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, remembers first hearing as a child at Greater Zion AME Church in Awendaw.

Kevin Hamilton on bass

While the music and culture still thrive in a religious context, many secular practices are disappearing, says Ross, explaining, “radio, television, and now the Internet have replaced the types of social dances, ring shouts, and clapping games that used to be more common.”

Unless you have tickets to April’s High Water festival, you won’t be able to hear Ranky Tanky reviving those songs and rhythms around Charleston anytime soon, as the group is busy touring, with major international performances lined up into 2018. However, watch for news of their debut album’s summertime release.