When the band Ranky Tanky released its eponymous debut album in 2015, the response was remarkable. Seemingly overnight, this South Carolina group that celebrates the music of the southeastern United States’ Gullah culture appeared on Good Morning America, was interviewed and played on NPR’s Fresh Air, and headlined at festivals and venues all over the country. Drummer Quentin Baxter, a founding member, has a simple explanation for the band’s success. “There’s a message that people are longing to experience,” he says. “When you find a way to present a message that resonates with people, that’s a different response coming from the audience.” That audience clearly includes members of the Recording Academy; the group’s second album Good Time won a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Music Album earlier this year.
Ranky Tanky’s music is relentlessly upbeat and infectious and incorporates jazz, blues, gospel, and R&B, yet remains its singular self: distinctly American, with African roots showing in plain view. Ironically, this hot new thing was actually a very old one. The group has already had a long history together—its male members (trumpeter Charlton Singleton, bassist Kevin Hamilton, guitarist Clay Ross, and Baxter) played off and on around the Charleston area for about 20 years in a jazz quartet called the Gradual Lean—but it wasn’t until they chose to focus on exploring traditional music that they found an identity and an audience.
According to Baxter, Ross was the catalyst for this incarnation of the band, which, as he describes it, “came together as an idea.” Ross had moved from South Carolina to Brooklyn, toured with Cyro Baptista, and formed his own groups, including Matuto, a mashup of Brazilian, jazz, and bluegrass. Those groups were playing a different circuit: one devoted to all forms of world music. Around 2015 Ross reflected on the rich music he’d been exposed to in Charleston, and realized that there wasn’t a great public awareness of the music of the Carolinas’ coastal islands. “He came back and approached us about it and we did a couple songs with him,” Baxter recalls. “Then he said, ‘Let’s make a group out of it.’ We did one iteration of it without [vocalist] Quiana [Parler] but we wanted someone to be the actual voice of the band. There was no one better than Quiana.”
Baxter has known Parler since she was nine or 10. “She was already singing and scatting Sarah Vaughan solos,” he says. “Her ability to sing just about anything is really something. We were in another band in which she was singing a lot of samba and salsa in different languages. She doesn’t necessarily speak them all but she can sing them. Like René Marie, she’s multi-singual.” Baxter should know, as he’s been recording and performing with jazz singer/songwriter Marie for more than 20 years—and, since 2018, he’s been her manager too. Like Singleton, Hamilton and Parler, he still resides in Charleston, and his connection to the local music scene is further enhanced by his role as curator of a jazz concert series on Kiawah Island, as well as artistic host to the prestigious Spoleto Festival USA.
The name Ranky Tanky translates loosely from Gullah as “Work It.” Indeed they did. The band took not only its name but also its musical direction from the Gullah Geechee culture that originates in the barrier islands from Pender County, North Carolina down to St. John’s County Florida. “Gullah” refers specifically to the islanders of the Carolinas, while “Geechee” refers to the islanders further south. It was on these islands that former enslaved blacks as well as free blacks established a unique culture and language with a direct link to West Africa. The Gullah language—also spoken by the Geechee people—is the only distinct African creole language in the U.S. “It’s the purest African assessment of the Queen’s English,” Baxter explains.
Baxter says that the Gullah music that inspired Ranky Tanky comes largely from the churches of those coastal African-American communities. “We’re celebrating the arts and crafts and culture of a people who were transcending the slave experience,” he notes. “When we compare Charleston and New Orleans, they’re sister cities for sure, but New Orleans was able to have a secular celebration in Congo Square. In Charleston we could only celebrate within the confinements of church. It was all steeped in Christianity. The food, the art reflected everything, but the music stayed in the church. At some point, there weren’t even drums because drums were effectively outlawed.”
Both Baxter and Singleton grew up playing in churches, albeit different ones. “I grew up in a Holiness Church and we had drums,” Baxter explains, “whereas Charlton grew up in an A.M.E. church where they didn’t have as many drums. But the claps, the stomps, the vocables, the way we actually sang, the inflections in the music—it’s all rhythmic. You can take the drums away, but you can’t take the beat.”
The rhythms of Ranky Tanky make up one unique aspect of the group’s sound. “When we all come together, writing or arranging songs, they look at me and they look at Charlton and then we communicate by code about the tempo and the vibe,” Baxter says. “We have this swagger or tempo that’s automatically aligned. That’s from the training in church. The approach and the roots that we bring to Ranky Tanky are a cultural memory from times past to what has survived through our churches.”
However, Baxter wants to make it clear that Ranky Tanky, though inspired by the music and message of the church, is not confined by it. “The message of man’s humanity to man is very important. We continue that message, but we wanted to not be a gospel or church band. We’re not forsaking the spirituality of the culture, but we’re bringing that spirituality under a secular assessment where everyone can feel good about it. You come to realize that you learn a lot of these songs from other blues bands because this music has informed a lot of different styles. Jazz, rhythm & blues, the whole nine yards, Gullah is in all of that. You’ll hear this rhythm.”
The first Ranky Tanky album predominantly features traditional songs that the group adapted, whereas Good Time is a 50/50 mix of originals and traditional adaptations: “There were some original songs that we infused with grooves to make them become even more adventurous, but you can still hear that driving Africa Gullah beat to it. Then we also rearranged some of the Gullah standards, if you will. We’re still interested in writing our own music as well as bringing back a lot of music.” Baxter says that he and Singleton have made a point of talking to the older generation about songs that are no longer sung in church, some of which the band’s now bringing to the table.
Baxter, who produced both albums, is particularly gratified by the response from the local community in Charleston. “There are a lot of things that feel great about presenting this music,” he says, “but the best feeling of all is the love we’re getting from home. ‘You are doing the right thing, you are doing it the right way, you’re celebrating this music, you’re bringing respect to our culture.’ When you hear that response, which is what you hope to hear, that’s goosebumps.”
Prior to aligning forces with the powerful booking agency The Kurland Agency two years ago, Ranky Tanky was self-managed and booked through Home Team Management (Clay Ross and José Curbelo). The Kurland Agency—until the coronavirus pandemic brought live performances to a hard stop—had the group touring the world, performing at venues and events across multiple genres, not just jazz and world music. Baxter hasn’t seen any difference in audience response between the various genres. “It’s the beauty of it,” he says. “We know what we do. We do what we do. Just because we’re at a jazz venue doesn’t mean that they only listen to jazz. Just because we’re at a rock venue doesn’t mean they only listen to rock. We’re somehow dead smack in the middle of everything for everyone. It’s a beautiful feeling to be received in all of the venues we’ve played in.”
Reflecting on Ranky Tanky’s success, Baxter returns to both the message and the rhythms: “These are messages and grooves that people are really wanting to settle in on and trust and take this ride. Whenever you play feel-good music for people, that gets a special response, and that’s song to song, not concert to concert.” This band’s obvious dedication to its roots in Gullah Geechee culture is proof positive that Ranky Tanky’s no novelty act. “It should not be a gimmick,” Baxter says emphatically. “It should be art. It should be music.”