A trio of CofC alums are spreading the joy, power and passion of Gullah music across the country and around the globe as part of the band Ranky Tanky.
The brainchild of Clay Ross ’98, Ranky Tanky, which is a Gullah term loosely translated as “work it” or “get funky,” employs the essential elements of traditional Gullah music from spirited call and response to rousing percussion to deeply piercing harmonies of sorrowful spirituals.
As a member of the U.S. State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program and as an artist-in-residence at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Ross has been exposed to an eclectic mix of music from around the world. His band Matuto, which he formed in 2009, is a fusion of sound that melds together the worlds of Brazil’s Carnival and the bluegrass sounds of the Appalachian Mountains. It makes sense that eventually his love of cultural music would turn toward his home state of South Carolina.
“I’ve been involved in roots music and world music for the past decade,” says Ross. “I’ve spent quite a lot of time researching the music of Brazil and later just turned that curiosity toward my own roots as a South Carolinian.”
The band officially formed in 2016 with a quintet of musicians including Ross on vocals and guitar, Quentin Baxter ’98 on drums, Kevin Hamilton ’95 on bass, Charlton Singleton on trumpet and vocals, and Quiana Parler on vocals. Ross, Baxter and Hamilton all majored in music as students at the College. Baxter currently works as adjunct faculty at CofC, teaching jazz percussion.
The group made its first big splash in NYC at globalFEST earlier this year, where Paste Magazine praised the band’s sound as successfully transforming “the hymns, party anthems and children’s songs of the islands into infectiously rocking numbers.” To date, the Charleston-based band has traveled to more than seven states including California, Nebraska, Colorado, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Over the summer, Ranky Tanky toured Europe making stops in Norway, Sweden, Scotland, Czech Republic and Austria. The band made its local debut in April at the High Water Festival put on by Shovels & Rope, which features alumna Cary Ann Hearst ’01.
What makes Ranky Tanky’s sound so special is its ability to mold and modernize the traditional sounds of Gullah music, which draws its sound from the cultural traditions of West African slaves who were brought to the sea islands of South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ross says the band has drawn inspiration from historical recordings such as ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s archive recordings of Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers as well as Guy Carawan’s recordings from his time living on John’s Island in the 1960s.
“In Ranky Tanky we take these source materials and arrange them for our instruments,” says Ross. “Our arrangements are more contemporary in that we bring our jazz backgrounds and other modern influences to the table. I still look at what we are doing as a direct extension of these folk traditions.”
The band is set to play again in Charleston as part of the MOJA Arts Festival on Oct. 8, 2017, at the Dock Street Theatre. The members of Ranky Tanky will also be featured at this year’s TEDxCharleston on Oct. 18, 2017.
The success of the band is something Ross thinks is born out of the close friendships the group shares. They’ve all known each other for more than 20 years and have played together in various musical endeavors over that time.
“It feels very special,” he says. “I think that we are very lucky to have met one another when we were young, and to have maintained our friendships over the years, and that now, having realized significant accomplishments individually, that together we are uniquely qualified to represent the roots music of our home for international audiences. I think the combination of our natural chemistry and talents as musicians, in service of this timeless and important music from our home, makes this project something truly special.”