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Critically Acclaimed Ranky Tanky Bringing Gullah Music To West Hartford

Ranky Tanky, a five-piece band from Charleston, S.C., takes Gullah music and culture from African-American communities in the Low Country region of South Carolina and adds chiming high-life guitars, elegant vocal and trumpet lines, and snapping, funk beats.

Guitarist Clay Ross, trumpeter Charlton Singleton, drummer Quentin E. Baxter and bassist Kevin Hamilton began playing music together two decades ago, while veteran singer Quiana Parler has performed with Clay Aiken, Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and Miranda Lambert.

“It just seemed so clear and easy, musically,” says Ross. “There was nothing forced or contrived about it. It was just like, ‘Let’s get together and go into the studio,’ boom, boom, boom, let’s do this thing that’s really natural for all of us.”

None of them expected what came next: dozens of high-profile gigs, a Fresh Air interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, and topping the Billboard Jazz Albums Chart with “Ranky Tanky,” a debut album.

Ranky Tanky performs at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford on Friday, March 2, at 7:30 p.m., with the Hartford Hot Several opening. Ross checked in about the band’s progress.

Q: Was there a point at which you realized Ranky Tanky would exceed your expectations?

A: The reaction was strong right from the beginning. Some of the big milestone moments, of course, were getting a call from NPR to be on Terry Gross. That was huge and very surreal. And then the spike that happened immediately after that in our online sales was really exciting. It has given us the opportunity to really go for it and to really try to build a sustainable career around this band. That’s our new goal — to create sustainability and to do the group as more of a full-time proposition.

The challenge is that none of us are in high school or college. We’re all adults with a lot of responsibilities. Everybody has had a lot of success and responsibility in their own individual lives and music careers. For us to shift and pivot toward this opportunity, it comes at a cost. We’re navigating that delicately, but we're so honored and overwhelmed by the response we’ve received.

Q: Is there a sense of responsibility — of furthering Gullah music, educating people about the tradition, and so on — that goes along with playing in Ranky Tanky?

A: Yes, that’s a big part of it. For us, having the culture to anchor ourselves on: We are serving something that’s bigger than ourselves. We’re responsible to share where those influences came from, what inspired the music at its core, to shine a light on something that's being forgotten and is underrepresented by contemporary artists. I think we seek opportunities to educate as well as perform.

Q: Gullah music: was the tradition mostly vocal, maybe with some percussion, to which a group like Ranky Tanky is charged with filling in some of what the instruments do?

A: You do see instruments coming into play in the evolution of the music organically. You have to look at Gullah as a living tradition. It’s not something that was frozen in the 1960s when Alan Lomax made his field recordings. A lot of that music has been the key source for Ranky Tanky.

We’re also leaning heavily on the actual life experiences of the musicians in the band who are of Gullah descent. As the music evolves into the present day, the roots of what you’d call Gullah are still firmly in place, the rhythmic feels and the text and the intent of the music. In most churches in the Low Country, you’re going to hear organists and drummers and pianists and other instruments already incorporated into the tradition.

Q: I also get the sense that improvisation is built into the tradition, but maybe not in the ways you were all used to.

A: It might not be improvisation in a jazz sense, where you’re playing over changes or thinking about playing blues and playing the right chords and the right melodies, but in terms of moving your spirit. Our drummer, Quentin, talks about this all the time: improvising and being in the moment and letting your voice cut through in a musical way that is improvised. That’s a huge part of it. That's always been a huge part of African-American traditions, all the way from the pulpit to the microphone, when you’re talking about hip-hop artists, or preachers in small communities in the Low Country or the rural South. There’s an improvisational element to all of it.

Q: “Knee Bone” seems like a place where you can stretch out.

A: Big time. There’s a large dose of improvisation in all of our performances. It makes it fun for us and for our audiences. They can feel the immediacy of it. In our set, we move from some songs that are clearly structured and built around the vocals that are pretty consistently similar, but there’s always room for people to interpret things in their own way, certainly in the rhythm department and the drum chair.

The reading of a particular tune might be different every night. In our personal music development, we’re jazz artists. We are improvisers. That’s actually how we initially connected, when we were in our early 20s. It’s just a very natural place for us to be.

Q: How do audiences respond?

A: The music is alive and it moves people. There are moments in the show when people just want to get up and dance, and they do. Then there are moments that offer an opportunity for deep reflection, spiritual songs like “Been in the Storm” or “O Death.” They have a profound effect on people, and it's powerful to watch that.

The songs and the texts are powerful. They deal with the fundamental issues of existence. Everybody who speaks English and can understand these words will react to that. When you mix profound talent with timeless material, it’s a very successful formula.

RANKY TANKY performs at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford on March 2 at 7:30 p.m. with the Hartford Hot Several opening. Tickets are $25 to $30. usj.edu

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