Against all odds, the Gullah tradition prevails on the Sea Islands of South Carolina's Low Country. Maintaining their West African traditions and singular way of life for generations, their direct impact on African-American music is undeniable, and continues to be a vital source of inspiration. Combining revered Gullah kinship with a jazz sensibility, Ranky Tanky accentuates the spirituality connected to the ring shouts and praise houses, proposing a modern rendition of their ancestral music.
Ranky Tanky loosely translates into 'work it' or 'get funky' in Gullah/Geechee, a language which still preserves many African words and phrases intermingled with English, to form an established patois. The core band of trumpeter Charlton Singleton, bassist Kevin Hamilton, guitarist Clay Ross, and drummer Quentin E. Baxter, go back over twenty years to music school, and a seminal Charleston jazz quartet, and are augmented by powerful vocalist Quiana Parler, with an impressive resume of her own.
The selections, all traditional spirituals and folk songs, anchored by original soulful intent, have undergone a contemporary polish. "That's Alright," invokes a Sunday service revival, emphasized by energetic handclapping and holy tambourine. There is a bible study thread winding through "Turtle Dove," an interesting guitar and trumpet improvisation flowing under the vocals. Parler goes acapella in the melancholic wail "Been In the Storm," accompanied sparsely by Baxters' mallet embellishments on the drums, the sacramental transporter of the spirits.
They kick it up with the title track, performed in a celebratory atmosphere, Singleton taking over 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 groups' 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.
The revolving arrangement on "Knee Bone," begins with vocal, clapping, and tambourine, sliding into a syncopated jazz section, the muted horn and guitar cleverly coaxing it back around. Sacred and secular merge into the familiar blues "You Gotta Move," and the rolling "Go To Sleep," is a soft acoustical lullaby. Ross and Singleton sing "You Better Mind," which is set at a marching tempo reminiscent of the drum and fife bands, and they wind it up with the cordial "Goodbye Song."
In spite of the harsh conditions of slavery the original Gullahs had to endure, the fact that they managed to uphold their communal harmony and resolute sense of hope is highly commendable. Their isolation on the coastal islands has been a blessing in disguise, as they are one of the few black communities in America preserving their African roots. The music presented by Ranky Tanky is a serious homage to these people, offered as an artistic reflection of who they are. Hopefully, this record will inspire others to investigate and appreciate the Gullah tradition, while it exists.