Modern-day group Ranky Tanky draws inspiration from traditional Gullah music
In honor of Black History Month, we are taking a look into the career highlights of African American artists and their contribution to the world of jazz and blues.
A modern-day band is drawing inspiration from Gullah, an American subculture that flourished in the low country of South Carolina and Georgia as far back as the 1600s. Meet Ranky Tanky, the jazz players taking their musical cues from Gullah.
Ranky Tanky is a five-piece group from Charleston, South Carolina, who play jazz-influenced arrangements of traditional Gullah music. Their debut release came in 2017, and their 2019 album “Good Time” was just awarded a Grammy for Best Regional Roots album.
Gullah is a distinct culture created by enslaved Africans and their descendants in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, with its own dialect, food and music traditions. Compared with other groups of slaves in the New World, Gullah developed in relative isolation for a very basic reason: malaria and yellow fever, carried to the New World with the slaves, became widespread on the rice farms of the coastal low country. While the Africans had some acquired immunity to the diseases, many white slave owners avoided them by leaving their workers in charge of the plantations for extended periods. And so Gullah culture and community life remained strongly rooted to African traditions.
Gullah music is influenced by West and Central Africa, but also by other music of the region such as gospel, country and blues. Songs you’ll know from Gullah culture are “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” and “Kumbaya,” among many others. Traditional Gullah is a cappella with foot stomps and hand-claps as in the 1960 recording of Jesse Lee Pratcher’s “Green Sally” — later covered by Ranky Tanky.
The group’s contemporary approach to Gullah and sparse instrumentation allow each member to bring the strongest parts of their musical personalities. With guitar as the only chording instrument, Kevin Hamilton’s bass takes a more prominent role in the mix, and Charlton Singleton’s trumpet becomes the main melodic force aside from the vocals. Guitarist Clay Ross’ minimalist world-beat approach also meshes well with drummer Quentin Baxter’s West African roots. Vocalist Quiana Parler grew up singing in church and says that gospel is at the root of Ranky Tanky’s sound.