Even in their home country, many people don’t know of the Gullah people, a subculture of African Americans spanning the coast and nearby islands of the Carolinas, down through northern Florida, who developed their own culture as well as the Gullah language (an offshoot of Creole). Similarly overlooked by most is their enormous contribution to the shape and shuffle of American music.
“Ever heard of a song called ‘Michael Row Your Boat Ashore?’” asks Charlton Singleton, trumpeter and singer in Ranky Tanky. “Gullah. Ever sang ‘Kumbaya?’ Ever seen little girls play pattycake hand-games with beats on 2 and 4? Gullah.”
The Gullah were descendants of enslaved West Africans forcibly brought to America to work the rice, cotton, and indigo fields along the East Coast. There, they existed in relative isolation, with many of the fields located off the coast on the small Sea Islands. As a result, Gullah culture became insular, and in the 1800s, it gave birth to its own dialect, cuisine, and, of course, music.
Ranky Tanky brings the traditional music of the Gullah region into the present, giving the songs a modern twist with the addition of electric guitar, stand-up bass, and drum set.
“Back in the day, it was just their voices, hand claps, and stomping their feet,” says Singleton.
The result of Ranky Tanky’s modernization is a moving, soulful rendition of the tunes that laid the groundwork for literally all of America’s great musical forms, from jazz and folk, to soul, rock, and hip-hop.
“The swing and the shuffle of jazz is deeply rooted in Gullah music,” says Singleton, himself an accomplished jazz musician. “It has been the informant, or the mother, of all these other styles. That’s just the truth. They didn’t have any Elvis Presley or any of that stuff in 1905.”
For a band focusing on the sound of Reconstruction-era America, Ranky Tanky’s music is remarkably infectious. Their 2017 debut won critical acclaim from NPR and Downbeat magazine, and shot immediately to #1 on Billboard, Apple, and Amazon’s jazz charts. Last July, they released Good Time, their second album, and first to feature original songs in the Gullah tradition. The album makes a case for the Charleston band as not just an important contribution to modern musicology, but also essential and relevant songwriters.
Good Time opens with the sizzling “Stand By Me,” a call for God’s protection during the troubled times in which we find ourselves. Led by an undeniably funky bassline, and singer Quiana Parler’s powerful voice, “Stand By Me” effortlessly connects Gullah music to the genres it went on to inspire. Second track “Freedom” revolves around a deceptively simple guitar riff that recalls Ghana’s highlife music—funky and soulful, while remaining cool and understated. On the chorus, Parler makes a demand every bit as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago: “We want freedom.”
Writing original songs in the Gullah tradition came easily for Ranky Tanky.
“In the Gullah community, there is a saying called ‘raising up a song,’” says Singleton. “When you raise up a song in church, that means someone starts singing or humming something. It might be something nobody knows, but by the end, I’m guaranteeing that everyone in church has already found something to do in that song.”
Many of Ranky Tanky’s originals emerged in a similar fashion, “Freedom” included.
“Quiana was on her phone one day when we were getting ready for soundcheck,” Singleton says, “Something had happened in the news. She was frustrated or something, and she was just went, ‘ugh…freedooooom.’ And that spurred what became ‘Freedom.’”
The product of this spontaneous process is a remarkably unique sound that builds on tradition, while incorporating elements of countless modern genres—not just soul, funk, and jazz, but also drone, Afrobeat, highlife, and gospel.
“We’re giving Gullah music a contemporary adjustment, basically,” Singleton says, “extending the Gullah traditions and everything. And all of the elders and high priests have been very supportive of us, and encouraging us along the way, so we feel very proud.”
Ranky Tanky performs at 7pm on Thursday, Jan. 30, at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. 427-2227.