South Carolina’s Ranky Tanky plays music rooted in the Gullah communities of the coastal lowlands and islands of the southeastern United States. Descended from black slaves who survived the harsh conditions of the rice fields, the Gullahs created a resilient hybrid culture out of their diverse African origins. Ranky Tanky takes traditional Gullah songs and rhymes, and gives them bold contemporary settings and arrangements. Late last year the quintet’s excellent self-titled debut topped the Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon jazz charts.
Based on a children’s game, “Ranky Tanky” is also one of the tracks. The Gullah expression is clearly a key to the band and the music, so what does it signify? “The loose translation is ‘Work it!’ ” says trumpet player Charlton Singleton, reached in Awendaw, near Charleston. “If you listen to the chorus of the song—‘Pain in my hands, ranky tanky’—you work it, you move your hands to get that pain out. ‘Pain in my legs, ranky tanky’—so you shake your legs. ‘Pain in my head, ranky tanky’—you move your head around. ‘Pain all over me’—you dance around. You’re trying to get rid of that pain. You work it. You get funky with it. You move. You groove.
“We gave the rhyme a melody, put chords behind it, and added our rhythm—and now it’s a song,” Singleton continues. “With our instrumentation of standup bass, trumpet, guitar, drums, and our influences as jazz musicians and gospel musicians and folk musicians, rhythm-and-blues musicians, and all of those experiences that we’ve had playing in other formations—when you wrap them all up, and put it into the Ranky Tanky ensemble, it comes out as something unique.”
Ranky Tanky formed in late 2016, after Singleton and three Charleston friends, who had played some years previously as jazz outfit Gradual Lean, got together with powerful local singer Quiana Parler. Their aim was to explore new musical territory for what Singleton calls the “Gullah rhythm”, which pervades the local soundscape.
“In songs like ‘Join the Band’ you can hear the rhythm clearly,” he says, then hums it—syncopated, and accented on the first beat. “Dum ti dum-dum, dum ti dum-dum. It could be a fast song, a midtempo song, a slow song. Our drummer Quentin [Baxter] maintains, and I agree, that the Gullah rhythm is almost impossible to write down, because it’s not just notes on the page, it’s a feel—with different nuances here and there. I grew up listening to it in church and it always seems to be present—even in the way that people around Charleston would play other music. You would find that beat someplace in there.”
Singleton sees Gullah influence deeply and subtly ingrained in African-American music. “We’re celebrating a culture that oftentimes didn’t get a chance to express itself freely. When you’d go to a praise house, as it was called, you’d have people that would sing these songs, and they’d improvise—whether with rhythms or vocally. You could argue that’s the origin of jazz. It goes really far back.”