Growing up in Awendaw, a fishing village in Charleston County, trumpet player/vocalist Charlton Singleton says Gullah culture was so woven into the fabric of daily life that he wasn’t even aware of its differences from the norm. “Nobody even used the term ‘Gullah,’” he says. “We just did what we did.”
Gullah is a Creole language spoken in a concentrated geographical area, the Lowcountry region along the Atlantic coastal islands in South Carolina, and, further south, on the border of Georgia and Florida (where it has traditionally been called “Geechee”). The Gullah people are descendants of 18th- and 19th-century slaves, and the relative isolation of these Sea Islanders both before and after the Civil War means many have managed to hold on to certain unique cultural characteristics. Singleton plays in Ranky Tanky, a genre-melding jazz five-piece. Band members celebrate their Gullah heritage, but they don’t keep it in the Lowcountry — they share it across the entire country, including at premier jazz clubs and festivals.
Singleton’s grandfather, known as “Big Daddy,” was raised on nearby Capers Island, about 15 miles northwest of Charleston. Despite its proximity to a city, the barrier island remains quite remote: even today it’s accessible only by boat. There are no roads on the island, and other than campers, today it is unpopulated.
“When he was a little boy, he was living on that island with his siblings and his family,” Singleton recalls. “A really big hurricane forced them to seek higher ground, so they got on a raft and floated over to the mainland. That’s how we ended up living in Awendaw.”
There, Gullah culture flourished. “The way that everybody talks and lives, a lot of the things from the Gullah culture were prevalent in my community, and in a lot of the black communities up and down the whole South Carolina coast,” Singleton says. “The food, the arts and crafts, the way of life, the dialect … all of those things make up Gullah culture. And in Ranky Tanky, we interpret those things.” (The band is translated from the Gullah language to mean “work it” or “get down.”)
In its own way, Gullah developed right alongside mass American culture; it simply expressed things in a different fashion. Singleton points out the name of another remote barrier island, Daufuskie, thought to be a dialectical interpretation of “the first key,” or the first sea island north of the Georgia state line (and therefore the southernmost island in SC).
Half of Daufuskie Island is now a country club and golf course — developments lamented by island crooner Jimmy Buffett and the late novelist Pat Conroy, who wrote about it in their respective genres. But the other half remains an epicenter of Gullah traditions. Singleton says that even once one arrives there by ferry, “the roads are dirt. There’s no lighting on them. You have to live there to know where things are.” Despite the encroach of modernity, the island’s isolation is a key to its preservation of the culture.
That relationship between Gullah and mass American culture flows naturally to music. Singleton recalls a time when Ranky Tanky guitarist Clay Ross showed him a song. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I know that song.’ And he said, ‘Really? You’ve heard this before?’” Singleton replied to his band mate, “‘Man, I’ve been singing that since I was three!’”
Singleton points out that the Gullah customs survived through oral tradition, and so “the authentic stuff has been passed down.” It’s true some songs have been lost or reinterpreted, but Ranky Tanky does its best to capture the music the way it would have sounded generations ago.
An example is the group’s reading of “You Gotta Move.” Recorded by Sister Rosetta Tharpe in 1950, the song is perhaps most famous in its 1971 reworking by the Rolling Stones — but its origins predate both versions by at least a century. “They’ve been singing that in the Gullah community for years and years,” Singleton says.
Another song in Ranky Tanky’s repertoire, “O Death,” is associated with Ralph Stanley and other bluegrass icons. But Singleton notes that this tune, too, has been embedded in Gullah tradition for generations — “long before [the movie and soundtrack] O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out.”
Gullah culture is still a mystery to most Americans. And while the band’s on-stage energy is celebratory, Ranky Tanky has a mission: to enlighten audiences as well as entertain them. Because sometimes people get confused.
“I remember a man — God bless him — at a concert we did last year in the Midwest,” Singleton says with a laugh. “He said, ‘Is your music … goulash?’ I said, ‘No, sir; it’s Gullah. Goulash, that’s a straight-up food!’”
At a Ranky Tanky concert, “you’ll learn quite a bit of things that you might not know,” he says, “and you’ll discover some things that you probably didn’t think of, and then you’ll think of them in a different way.”
Ranky Tanky plays the Veh Main Stage series at the Tryon Fine Arts Center (34 Melrose Ave.) on Friday, November 3, 8pm. $17-$40. Call 828-859-8322 or see tryonarts.org for more information. www.rankytanky.com.