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Grammy-winning Ranky Tanky is a band with a mission to honor Gullah culture

South Carolina band Ranky Tanky is on a mission to revive and celebrate Gullah music and culture, which originated among descendants of West African slaves in Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. The group earned a Grammy Award this winter, and Jeffrey Brown went to the Lowcountry for a listen as part of our American Creators series and ongoing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.

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  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ranky Tanky, it loosely means get funky. And you can see and feel why it's the right name for a band celebrating and reinventing a music of joy and pain, rhythms brought by the enslaved from West Africa, spirituals of the Christian church, themes that resonate today.

    It includes songs many know, though you have likely never hear kumbaya quite like this, an impromptu performance for us by vocalist Quiana Parler and trumpet player Charlton Singleton.

  • Woman:

    And the Grammy goes to "Good Time," Ranky Tanky.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Fresh off winning a Grammy for the album "Good Time," a first for Gullah music.

  • Charlton Singleton:

    It meant a lot to me with this community, just because of the magnitude of the whole Gullah thing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You felt you were representing something?

  • Charlton Singleton:

    Yes.

    It's an honor to be here to stand on the shoulders of our Gullah ancestry.

    That's representative of how I was raised, to be a musician, from listening and watching and imitating all of my aunts and uncles and grandparents.

    Thank you so much.

    And to have it all kind of culminate with a Grammy, wow. Yes.

  • Qiuana Parler:

    Growing up in church, we emulate the elders as well. It was like a homecoming for me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The ensemble is based in Charleston and specializes in jazz-influenced arrangements of traditional Gullah, sometimes called Gullah Geechee, which originated among descendants of enslaved Africans in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.

    The four male members of Ranky Tanky have played music together since meeting at the College of Charleston in the 1990s. But they'd all gone off to do their own things, until two decades on, guitarist and vocalist Clay Ross proposed reuniting around Gullah. They brought in Quiana Parler in 2017.

  • Clay Ross:

    I'm a disciple of this music. This music moves me.

    You know, this music has called to me. It's inspired me. And it's been a part of my life for over two decades. There's no one out there doing a contemporary expression of our South Carolina roots music, and specifically Gullah music.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There's a strong sense of mission with this band, as we saw when percussionist Quentin Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton and Clay Ross offered a lesson in history and music to students at the Charleston Seventh Day Adventist School.

    It wasn't a hard sell, as these fifth to eighth graders quickly took to the clapping, singing and dancing.

  • Quentin Baxter:

    The thing about it is, the music and the message of the culture itself deserves as big of a stage as it can get.

  • Kevin Hamilton:

    I like to think of it as hopefully being part of the evolution of the culture. So, there is a preservation there, but also I think there's also the — hopefully sharing it with the world and also adding to it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, they were singing of the pains they were going through, right, the difficulties.

  • Kay Colleton:

    But also songs of praise.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The members of Ranky Tanky drew inspiration from places like Pastor Kay Colleton's Manna Life Center, a church on John's Island, one of the many rural islands off South Carolina where Gullah culture took root.

    Built in 1902 and now on the National Register of Historic Places, it was known as a praise house, where different denominations would gather, and was home to the Moving Star Hall Singers.

  • Kay Colleton:

    A lot of times, when young people hear the songs of the elders, they think, oh, that's old stuff. No, that's good stuff. That is music that gives us a foundation. It helps us move forward in a more progressive state. And so we don't want to forget that. We don't to lose that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Gullah's popularity today springs from a more difficult past; 91-year-old Abraham "Bill" Jenkins grew up on John's Island.

  • Abraham “Bill” Jenkins :

    Everybody looked down on the Gullah then.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes?

  • Abraham Jenkins :

    Even the people of Charleston, they weren't speak much better than we do. But they thought, oh, that's those country boys.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's how you were treated, sort of second-class citizens?

  • Abraham Jenkins :

    Mostly fifth-class citizens.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Fifth-class citizens, yes.

    But then the music was a relief from that life?

  • Abraham Jenkins :

    Oh, people glad to get to church. Somebody leads, and the other one responds, lead and respond.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ranky Tanky band members want to play it forward for current and future generations. They're also part of larger Gullah cultural moment.

    We met Charlton Singleton and Quiana Parler in the Neema Fine Art Gallery, which features Gullah artists such as Dana Coleman, a childhood friend of Charlton's.

  • Charlton Singleton:

    To see his work and how it has gone out all over the world is just another feather in the cap of the homeys from the neighborhood.

  • Woman:

    And nothing says Low Country cuisine like Gullah fried shrimp.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    TV food shows like "Delicious Miss Brown" reach larger audiences, even as traditional sweetgrass baskets and other crafts are sold on local streets here.

    In the meantime, the band is now performing at large venues.

  • Charlton Singleton:

    It was in this very room that we recorded our Grammy Award-winning album.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And they are still playing for local friends and family, as on this night at the Truphonic Recording Studio. They closed, appropriately, with the song embracing this good time for Ranky Tanky and Gullah music.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Charleston.

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