You don’t so much listen to their music as imbibe it. It’s not so much that they play music as it is they transfer a feeling. This group of five musicians making up Charleston band Ranky Tanky connect the cultural dots of an ancestral lineage born of the tightly woven communities of the Gullah people of the Sea Islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia. The Gullah are the descendants of the enslaved Africans whose heritage the quintet pays homage to through two stellar efforts thus far: their eponymous debut album in 2017, which landed at Number 1 on the Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon Jazz charts, and 2019’s Good Time, which earned them a Grammy Award this year for Best Regional Roots Music Album.
Ranky Tanky (a Gullah expression for “get funky”) has an undeniable chemistry that can only exist between folks who have known each other for many years, as Quiana Parler (vocals), Kevin Hamilton (bass), Quentin E. Baxter (drums), Charlton Singleton (trumpet and vocals), and Clay Ross (guitar and vocals) have. Ross, a New York City resident originally from Anderson, South Carolina, brought the idea to his longtime fellow musician friends to reach back into history to play this music together as a band. “We have a sound and a chemistry that’s been cultivated for the past 20-plus years,” says Hamilton, calling in from Charleston. “So we basically want to do right by that, but also contribute to the Gullah community. That’s a big thing for us: to be playing something that adds to it and enriches it and brings it further, but also at the same time to enjoy it.”
No wonder their second release is so perfectly titled. Good Time is a joyful celebration of horns and handclaps, of harmony and call-and-response chorus. This is not some kind of cultural appropriation either: Hamilton grew up in the community on James Island and explains that “the three people that came up in church with it are Quiana, Charlton, and Quentin,” he says, adding, “and Quentin, whose got a family full of deacons and he’s been playing in church all his life. Music came to him differently than it came to me. The running joke in the band is that I grew up Catholic, so for me church music is different.”
No matter how the music came to them, Ranky Tanky has brought focus to these songs of strife, struggle, and the yearning for spiritual uplift. Parler’s voice is the kind that fills every molecule in the air with weight, but also with light. She balances the heft in the history of the culture with sheer voluminous energy and searing beauty. You can read about them, sure, but listen to them and feel transcended. Listen and, maybe for the first time, truly hear.
Photography by Peter Frank Edwards. To learn more about Ranky Tanky, go to rankytanky.com.