When South Carolina natives Quentin Baxter, Kevin Hamilton, Charlton Singleton and Clay Ross first met in 1998, they had just left university, and were wondering what the future held for them? The meeting proved to be a game-changer for the four musicians, and soon, they had formed what’s still remembered as seminal Charleston jazz quartet. However, eventually the four friends went their separate ways and got on with their lives.
Throughout the years apart, the four friends kept in touch with each other, and as the years passed, them came to understand each other better. Eventually, after the best part of two decades apart the four friends decided it was time to reform a new band together.
By then, Quentin Baxter, Kevin Hamilton, Charlton Singleton, and Clay Ross had all matured as musicians and were accomplished, versatile and talented players. They had come a long way since they first met in 1998. All their new group needed was a vocalist, and they knew the very person, Quiana Parler who is one of the country’s most celebrated vocalists. Together, the new quintet became Ranky Tanky, which translates from the Gullah language as work it or get funky! That is fitting as Ranky Tanky certainly get funky on their forthcoming album Ranky Tanky which they’ll self release their eponymous debut album on October the ‘6th’ 2017. It’s the next part in a story that began nineteen years ago.
Back then, bassist Kevin Hamilton, guitarist Clay Ross, and future two times Grammy-nominated drummer and producer Quentin E. Baxter were all just about to finish composition degrees. Meanwhile, trumpeter and vocalist Charlton Singleton had just returned home after graduating from South Carolina State University. Not long after that, the four future bandmates paths crossed for the first time?
When the four musicians met for the first time, they hit it off and it wasn’t long before they started talking about forming a jazz quartet together. This would allow the four composition graduates to put what they had learnt into practise and hone their musical skills.
For the next few years the jazz quartet played at venues throughout South Carolina. Playing in the jazz quartet with their friends was good experience for the young musicians, and soon, they were a popular draw locally. However, nothing lasts forever and after a few years gigging locally guitarist Clay Ross decided to move to New York. That marked the end of the jazz quartet in its current form.
It didn’t mark the end of the friendship though. The four friends kept in touch as the years passed by. When their busy schedules allowed, they got the old band together and rolled back the years. By then, the four old friends had embarked upon successful musical careers.
Drummer Quentin E. Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton and trumpeter and vocalists Charlton Singleton had all embarked upon successful musical careers. They were now jazz musicians, bandleaders, composers, educators, and producers who were based in Charleston and much further afield. The three friends had come a long way since their days giving around South Carolina.
So had guitarist Clay Ross who was exploring music from different parts of the world. This included Brazilian music which Clay Ross was especially interested in. His interest in Brazilian music resulted in Clay Ross embarking upon a musical journey, where he would trace his musical roots and investigate the music of his home state of South Carolina. Before doing this, Clay Ross decided to tell his bandmates of his plays, and there was a degree of scepticism.
Kevin Hamilton remembers that time; “I thought everyone knew about this stuff.” That may have been the case to a degree, but Clay Ross was determined to dig deeper and get a greater understanding of his roots and the music of South Carolina.
That was how Clay Ross discovered the Gullah language, which is an English-based creole dialect spoken primarily by African-Americans living on the seaboard of South Carolina and Georgia and even in Northeast Florida. The roots of the language can be traced to the rice fields and plantations in South Carolina and Georgia, where it developed during the eighteenth Century. Gullah came about through contact between colonial types of English and the languages of African slaves that had arrived in America. Many languages influenced the development and evolution of the Gullah dialect as it took shape.
Over two hundred years later, and the Gullah dialect continues to influence American life and popular culture. Everything from Brer Rabbit to children’s hand games to the song Kumbayah has been influenced by the Gullah dialect. Many people who have sung and heard Kumbayah won’t know that it’s Gullah for come by here. It’s just one of many songs whose roots can be traced back to the Gullah dialect.
Charlton Singleton explains how these songs evolved: “these are songs often created on the spot, at play, or in church. They sometimes become part of a person’s contribution to worship, to be passed down to a family member with time. This direct transmission kept the music alive and ever shifting.” That is the case today, with Ranky Tanky including several traditional Gullah songs on their eponymous debut album.
This includes O Death and Go to Sleep which have been reworked by and given a twist by the members of Ranky Tanky. It was a similar case with Watch That Star, a song that trumpeter and vocalist Charlton Singleton knew as soon as he heard it. The song shared a few verses with his grandfather’s song, a song the elder had received after “seeking,” which is a key moment in a young Gullah person’s spiritual development. Charlton Singleton explains: “the method of seeking when he was growing up was to go out into the woods and seek the Lord while trying to be with the creator, be one with the heavens. The process often ended with a person finding a song that became their own. A song they would go on to “raise up” at every Sunday service, and a song that the entire community would associate with that person alone.“ Now that Watch That Star has been given a makeover by South Carolina based Ranky Tanky, they make it their own. That was still to come.
Not long after Clay Ross started studying the Gullah dialect, the jazz quartet started to work on some Gullah songs. They were arranged in such a way that they kept the spirit but sounded had an original sound. This can’t have been easy, but with four talented musicians and composers in the band the songs soon took shape. Now all the band needed was a vocalist.
The problem was finding the right vocalist. That wouldn’t be easy. Fortunately, the quartet had someone in mind. This was Quiana Parler, who was blessed with a powerhouse of a vocal. She had featured on American Idol, and this had resulted in Clay Aiken asking her to join his touring ensemble. However, before inviting Quiana Parler to join the band, all the members of the band had to be in agreement. However, they voted unanimously to bring Quiana Parler onboard and that day, Ranky Tanky was born.
Three decades after forming their first band, the four friends had formed their second band Ranky Tanky. Now the hard work began, and the five members of Ranky Tanky began working on the thirteen songs that feature on their eponymous debut album.
Trumpeter and vocalist Charlton Singleton explains his approach to songwriting.“When I write songs for jazz gigs, I’ll have a melody and the chords in my mind, but I also know that I want Quentin to play, so I’ll leave it to him to come up with a rhythmic foundation. I might suggest some bass line ideas for Kevin, but I leave it up to him. That’s how we collaborate. We start with the songs and games, but it’s our personalities that help drive these arrangements.”
Playing an important part in Ranky Tanky’s arrangements is improvisation. This is something many non-musicians fail to grasp and understand. What they don’t understand is how the arrangement unfolds according to a unique set of rules and understandings. Kevin Baxter explains: “Improvisation is a tool, not a departure. It’s entrenched. It depends on what we need to get across,” “And it’s not just instrumental; Quiana will sing a phrase over and over. When there’s a message being communicated, a spirit being conveyed, that’s key to cultural trance music like this music. These are rhythms for people to shout and praise on. It’s about how deep you want to get into it. It’s not about novelty or harmonic substitutions. You stay with the folk of it, and that gets you back into earlier improvisational skill sets.”
Another thing that plays an important part in the sound and success of Ranky Tanky is the dialogue between voice and drum in some of the songs on the album. A case in point is Been In The Storm. Then on Knee Bone, there’s a vocal call and response with an instrumental reprise. Knee Bone was an opportunity for many of the band members to use techniques that they had learned growing up in South Carolina.
These techniques are put to good use on Ranky Tanky, which draws inspiration from a myriad of influences. Among them are Zydeco, traditional gospel music and the guitar based music of popular music of Ghana, Mali and Senegal. Ranky Tanky is an album where the five members of the band have drunk deeply at the musical well and created a captivating and deeply eclectic, joyous, moving and spiritual album. This isn’t bad for a “leaderless band.”
Clay Ross reflects: “we are a leaderless group and a musical family. There is a constant give and a take, giving each other shit, and knowing it’s all in love. At the core is something real, and a process that filters truth. Most members of this band were born Gullah, and I’m an adopted son, digging deeper with a book. Our different perspectives give us an opportunity to find mutual understanding. We just laugh through the process.” Those who have seen Ranky Tanky live, remark upon the laughter and joy, and how close the band is. They really are like a “musical family” when the lights are dimmed and they take to the stage.
The newest addition to Ranky Tanky Quiana Parler talks about when the band play live.“My approach to these songs when I perform live, it’s all about what I’m feeling at the moment in collaboration with what the band is playing. I’m from the country and was introduced to Gullah language and culture about sixteen years ago through my son’s father. I had no idea what he was saying or speaking when I first met him. Our connection to the songs’ spiritual aspect is through church. So when I approach these songs, I take a spiritual approach. It’s all about feeling for me.” This is working well for Ranky Tanky as the release of their eponymous debut album approaches.
Ranky Tanky features thirteen traditional songs which have been arranged by the band. These songs range from spiritual songs, to songs about childhood games, human experiences and nature tales. Essentially they’re observations about Gullah life that are still relevant today. These songs are sure to strike a nerve with listeners. They’ll be captivated as these traditional songs take on new life as Ranky Tank unleash their well honed jazz chops on songs like Knee Bone.
Other times, Ranky Tank get funky before Quiana Parler switches between her soulful and spiritual side. That is the case on That’s Alright and Turtle Dove, where the trumpet provides the perfect to the vocal. Then on Been In The Storm Quiana Parler delivers a vocal powerhouse whose roots are in the church. Quiana Parler is truly versatile vocalist and has the ability to breath, life and meaning into the lyrics.
Sometimes, the music draws inspiration from Zydeco and of course gospel music. Add to the equation two talented vocalists in Charlton Singleton and the result is a potent and heady brew. Especially when Ranky Ranky improvise and showcase three decades of musical experience. This they put to good throughout Ranky Ranky which is a full of highlights galore. Especially songs like Ranky Ranky, which is an irresistible sounding track that features some blistering guitar licks. Very different is O Death a ruminative sounding song, that a soulful and spiritual quality.
You Gotta Move is another song that combines the soulful and spiritual with some well honed jazz licks. Watch That Star features a beautiful, impassioned vocal from Quiana Parler. She then combines power and passion on her gospel-tinged, soulful vocal on Sink Em Low. Join The Band has a joyous and melodic quality, while Go To Sleep is a beautiful Gullah lullaby. You Better Mind is an uplifting and memorable spiritual song. Ranky Tanky keep the best to last with the joyous Goodbye Song where they combine their vocal talents and jazz licks ensuring the album ends on a high.
Ranky Tanky is an album to cherish where the music is variously beautiful, enchanting, irresistible, joyous and uplifting. Other times the music veers between cerebral and thought-provoking to thoughtful and ruminative. The music is also rich in imagery and has a cinematic quality as Ranky Tanky retell Gullah tales from South Carolina’s past. These songs were reworked by Ranky Tanky, who make them their own and will introduce them to a new generation of music fans.
Hopefully, they too will be inspired to retrace South Carolina’s musical roots, and discover how it’s influenced the music of today. That is what Ranky Tanky have done, and in doing so, ensure that the music continues to survive.
Not only will Gullah music survive, but it’s sure to thrive. Especially now that Ranky Tanky is flying the flag for Gullah music. They’ve reworked thirteen traditional songs on their eponymous debut album Ranky Tanky. It showcases Ranky Tanky’s impressive jazz chops as they draw inspiration from gospel, soul and Zydeco on their carefully crafted and accomplished eponymous debut album. It’s a beautiful, melodic, memorable, poignant and powerful album from Ranky Tanky. They ensure that Gullah music’s future is in safe hands. Thanks to Ranky Tanky, Gullah music will survive and thrive and find a wider audience way beyond South Carolina, where the story began.