Eleven seconds. That's how long a listen I gave Ranky Tanky before I decided to book them.
"Who is the greatest?" A guttural chant kicks off the call and response:
"We are the greatest."
"Are you sure?"
Then the beat drops with a jubilant walking baseline plucked on a standup, and I'm hooked before the lead singer even opens her mouth.
It is the only time I've booked a concert solely from an email solicitation. If I'm being completely honest, it's unusual for me to even open every email I receive from booking agents. I think it was the consonance of those two unfamiliar words "ranky" and "tanky" that first caught my attention. Don't they pique your curiosity a bit?
I opened a second YouTube video, "Sink 'Em Low." Two seconds. The brassy moan of a mournful trumpet was enough for me, but I waited twenty more seconds to hear the lead singer. She is earnest and her tone is as assured as it is clear. The timbre of her voice echoes the weary resonance of the trumpet. I wanted more of that story.
Ranky Tanky is a Charleston, S.C.-based quintet that performs timeless "Gullah" music. In the few weeks that we've been promoting this show, I've learned that "Gullah" is as unfamiliar a word to many as are the words "ranky" and "tanky."
Gullah is a distinctly African culture born in the Southeastern Sea Island region of the United States. Aspects of Gullah culture are familiar parts of Southern American history; however, we may just not know the source.
The Gullah people are descendants of West Africans who were enslaved in the Southeastern Sea Island region of the United States from North Carolina to Florida, and concentrated in South Carolina's Sea Islands in order to do the work on the plantations that helped build America. Anita Singleton-Prather, CEO/Owner of ASE Gullah Education, LLC, explains that Gullah was "born of the blending of West African customs and heritage during the transatlantic slave trade."
Emory S. Campbell, President of Gullah Heritage Consulting Services notes that "Gullah" is the most distinct African culture in America. It is thought, he explains, to come from the word "Gola," which refers to a tribe of rice growing people in West Africa.
Early American plantation owners sought the people of West Africa's "Rice Coast," which includes countries like Sierra Leone, Senegal, Gambia, and Angola, because of their expertise in rice cultivation. These people were assigned specialized tasks and once they completed those tasks they had the rest of the day as "free time" and, as Campbell describes it, "they were pretty much left alone certain times of the year and were able to practice the African way of life, which has sustained itself over the last 100 to 150 years."
You've likely participated in Gullah heritage, particularly if you've visited Charleston, S.C. Almost synonymous with the southern city are the Gullah sweetgrass baskets, or coil straw¬�baskets¬�made in the downtown markets. Bruh Rabbit and Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus are Gullah characters who speak in the deep south Gullah dialect. And a very familiar folk song, "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore," comes from Gullah culture.
Kumbaya, in fact, is a song I've sung around countless camp fires, without any idea the phrase is a Gullah one - "Kum Bah Yah" - meaning "come by here." The forms of music we often describe as American are actually born of the same West African lineage from which Gullah arose. Negro Spirituals are influenced by West African chants, blue note sound, and the use of call and response. These fundamental elements are also the basis for jazz, blues, spirituals, and gospel, which we have come to understand as "American" music.
Gullah has a rich musical heritage, from playful game songs to ecstatic shouts, from heartbreaking spirituals to delicate lullabies. These musical roots of Charleston, S.C., are rank and fertile ground from which Ranky Tanky the band is grateful to have grown. "Ranky Tanky" is a Gullah word that translates loosely as "work it" or "get funky" and it is in this spirit that these contemporary artists celebrate and revive a Heartland of American music born in their own backyards.
The opening concert in AACA's 2017-2018 Black Box Concert Series offers an authentic celebration of a culture that has had enormous influence on American music heritage. The artists comprising "Ranky Tanky" were not only raised on the music they celebrate, but they also have impressive musical pedigrees.
Whether you're looking for a cultural experience or a night to simply let soulful music take you away, an unparalleled evening awaits you at the Sue E. Trotter Black Box Theater. As a reviewer of the band's recent appearance at an international musical festival described the ban's essence: "Like the best of globalFEST, Ranky Tanky proved that exotic music can be both unfamiliar enough to be surprising, and yet familiar enough to provoke swinging hips and nodding heads. When it works, it's the best of both worlds."