Down in the lowlands of South Carolina there is a quintet making their own unique noise. Building on the West African language of Gullah, which means “a people blessed by God,” the group goes by the name Ranky Tanky, which translates loosely to “Work It,” or “Get Funky,” and that is exactly what they do on their new album, Ranky Tanky. The Gullah culture is considered to be one of the most authentic West African cultures in America today. The quintet is comprised of: trumpeter Charlton Singleton, vocalist Quiana Parler, bassist Kevin Hamilton, guitarist Clay Ross, and drummer Quentin E. Baxter. Ranky Tanky contains 13 traditional spirituals and folk songs of pure musical joy with that special sumthin’.
“That’s Alright” opens the festivities, instantly the Island beat that is melded with West African poly-rhythms is identifiable. Singleton’s trumpet resonantes clear and warm as he leads us to Parler’s singing of the melody. Parler’s voice is wonderful, full bodied with clear diction and technique, aplenty. Ross and Singleton provide harmony vocals on the chorus, which broadens the sound and lifts the energy. The energetic march beat from Baxter is released for the bridge, instead a steady tambourine figure with handclaps is used to keep the current flowing. The group’s creative arranging skills is also of note here, taking the repetitive song structure and giving it a new sound to build the story and keep the music fresh. For example, after the bridge, which contains the before mentioned instrument change, the verse and chorus is presented with only drum hits and three-part vocal harmony. Simply excellent!
“Turtle Dove” is a relaxed island flavored spiritual sung by Singletonwith heart and authenticity. Ross’ guitar playing is first-rate, he mimics a Pan drum sound by the use of a vibrato effect and clear arpeggiation of the chords. Baxter creates his own color change on his drum set, focusing on the toms to give a percussion effect. Again, the three-part harmonies are full and add to the arrangement. When Singleton plays the melody on the trumpet, Ross doubles the melody on the top of his chords to broaden the sound the first time, the second time around, he plays a counterpoint that lends freshness and interest. This attention to detail is what makes Ranky Tanky absolutely amazing!
They kick it up with the title track, performed in a celebratory atmosphere, with Ross taking over the lead vocals on the rousing call and response. The magnificent and mournful “O Death,” illustrates a desperate plea to the grim reaper to be “spared over for another year”; a prime example of the group’s ability to reimagine their music. The trumpet introduced “Sink Em Low,” exposes Parler’s emotional depth and superb sense of vocal authenticity. These two songs are both influenced by Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, essential Gullah musicians whose recordings have considerable historical importance.
Ranky Tanky is a joyous listen, this collection of soulful songs of the Gullah culture are brought to life, this quintet of South Carolinians that subtly mix low country traditional sounds with just the right amount of: jazz, gospel, funk, and R&B is a standout. Ranky Tanky’s imaginative arrangements and attention to detail, proves that exotic music can be both unfamiliar enough to be surprising, and yet familiar enough to be enjoyed over and over again.