TELLING STORIES, CHANGING THE CONVERSATION

Jazz-soul group, Ranky Tanky keeps Gullah roots at the center of music

in Ark Weekender/Arts & Culture by

Pulling from a culture that sits at the center of American music, Ranky Tanky, a quintet from Charleston, South Carolina, pays homage to the Gullah tradition and ways in their songs.

Comprised of Quentin Baxter (Drums), Kevin Hamilton (Bass), Quiana Parler (Vocals), Clay Ross (Guitar) and Charlton Singleton (Trumpet), the band fuses folk, gospel and jazz through a low country lens. Now, Ranky Tanky’s mélange of old culture and new sound gains traction and fans.

Performing at the Bluenote, in New York, on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, Ranky Tanky is on a nationwide tour after the release of their second album, “Good Time,” charted on Billboard. A musical approach described as a reinterpretation of Gullah “songs, a lot of the kids games, poems even,” by band member, Singleton on NPR’s World Cafe, Ranky Tanky gives a more contemporary feel of a community of people who have lived along the southeastern coastal United States for generations.

Singleton who grew up listening to Gullah music from his grandfather, gives more insight into the Black ethnic group:

“The Gullah community . . . geographically it stretches from the southern coast of North Carolina and goes down the coast of South Carolina, down the coast of Georgia and to the top of Florida, around the Jacksonville area.  And along the coast of the United States  . . . you have all of these little sea islands that are just off of the coast and only reachable by bridge or some sort of boat or ferry or whatever have you. And on these islands, many, many years ago lived, former enslaved West Africans. And so, they maintained a lot of things that they were accustomed to doing whether it was how they interacted with each other, how they praised at church, how they invented their own sort of language, how they did arts and crafts, a whole bunch of things, how they prepared food.”

Ranky Tanky, a Gullah phrase for “get funky,” contributes to what Gullah scholar and professor, Melissa L. Cooper coins as the “Gullah revival,” which is a reintroduction of Gullah peoples, their history and culture through creative works. From a more pop culture standpoint, Beyonce’s visual release of her album, Lemonade, borrowed heavily from the aesthetic of filmmaker, Julie Dash’s iconic work, “Daughters of the Dust.” Dash’s film, shot on location on the South Carolina’s coast, represented, and in some cases, initiated the knowledge of Gullah communities to mainstream audiences.

‘Raise up a song’

Included in Ranky Tanky’s Gullah-centric music, the retention of culture reemerges with a key archaeological find. In May of this year, the Gullah Society, founded by Ade Ofunniyin, a cultural anthropologist, reinterred the bones of the oldest Black burial in Charleston. Consisting of the remains of 36 enslaved people that are almost 250-years old and were clearly African, the unmarked gravesite uncovered the fact that Africans held onto home country rituals and customs, even in burial rites.

As Ranky Tanky works to keep the cultural production of the Gullah peoples alive, there is a decades-long fight for them to keep their land. For many years, low country Sea Islands peoples lived isolated. During the mid-19th Century, as they began to travel more to the mainland US for more education and economic opportunities, developers encroached on their islands and began seizing property through a number of nefarious ways.

“Some ideas about the Gullah have kind of been constructed as romantic and quaint . . . these weren’t Blacks living a picturesque existence, these were Blacks living through Jim Crow,” says Cooper who is a descendant of the Gullah. “The stories we’ve told about the Gullah have overshadowed their very real struggle as Black Southerners throughout time . . . property rights and land loss are really defining conversation about Gullah communities.”

As communities continue to fight against predatory real estate firms and corporation, they hold fast to their roots. “In the Gullah community, we have this thing where we raise up a song,” says Ranky Tanky’s lead singer, Parler. And so, that is what they do.

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