Photo: Peter Frank Edwards
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Ranky Tanky On The Lasting Influence Of Gullah Music And Being Global Genre Ambassadors
Over the past three years, Gullah music, a centuries-old sound from the South Carolina Lowcountry region, has entered the mainstream. That's largely thanks to Ranky Tanky, an effervescent quintet hailing from Charleston, S.C., who've become global ambassadors of Gullah music and culture.
For those unfamiliar, Gullah music is part of a wider culture rooted in the Lowcountry along the South Carolina coast. The Gullah people, meanwhile, are a tight-knit local community and descendants of slaves from the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. Through art and music, they’ve preserved and honored West African traditions and culture for generations.
Ranky Tanky first brought Gullah to the spotlight with their 2017 self-titled debut album, which topped the Billboard Jazz Albums chart in 2018. The album is composed of covers and arrangements of Gullah folk songs and classics.
For their 2019 follow-up, Good Time, Ranky Tanky broke the mold. Released last July, Good Time features Gullah standards and, for the first time ever, brand-new original compositions, which are informed by the Gullah tradition yet modernized through Ranky Tanky's contemporary lens.
The approach paid off: In 2020, Ranky Tanky are nominated for Best Regional Roots Music Album for Good Time. With the nod, the group and release are also making GRAMMY history as the first-ever album of Gullah music to receive a nomination, now bringing the genre to the international mainstage.
For founding member Charlton Singleton, the group's trumpeter/singer, Ranky Tanky's nomination is a massive honor for both the band and the wider Gullah community.
"We’ve been very fortunate and blessed to have the support of the Gullah community," he tells The Recording Academy. "Gullah is something that everybody is all in on… So any sort of celebration that can take place is something that everybody is just all in for."
Ahead of Ranky Tanky's big night at the 2020 GRAMMYs, The Recording Academy caught up with Singleton to discuss the lasting influence of Gullah music and the group's newfound role as global ambassadors for the genre.
What was your reaction when you first heard Ranky Tanky were nominated for a GRAMMY?
Oh, it was just sheer joy. It's something that I think every artist appreciates and wants to be recognized for their contribution in the music world and with the highest honor that there is: a GRAMMY. I jumped on my bed for a little while and yelled. There was nobody else at the house at that particular time, so I kind of ran through the house a little bit, just yelling and screaming. But it was an amazing thing to see it posted right there on the screen, saying that we were in this final group of talented artists and other great recordings. It was a great, great moment.
There seems to be a rise in awareness and listenership of Gullah, largely thanks to Ranky Tanky. But at the same time, this is likely the first time a lot of people are learning about the genre, through your GRAMMY nomination and through your various accomplishments. How do you describe the Gullah sound and its associated community and culture to first-timers?
When we're on stage, I have these moments where I start talking with the audience in between a song, and I tell them about certain things that they have either seen or heard of in their lifetime that are uniquely Gullah… Then I usually graduate into things that people would know. For example, have you ever sung "Kumbaya" before?
"Kumbaya" is a Gullah song—uniquely Gullah. I know there's [probably] not a whole lot of people on the face of the Earth that have not come across "Kumbaya." And as a matter of fact, sometime last year, it was finally recognized as being a song composed uniquely from the Gullah community.
Music-wise, the Gullah rhythm has a distinctive beat to it. I think with some of the other music that is out there today, you can really put a strong debate on the fact that Gullah, especially in music, has been an informant to a lot of different genres like jazz, folk music, rhythm and blues. There are so many similarities in those music [styles] that it's inevitable that you would get back to Gullah because Gullah predates all of those things.
Gullah is also part of a wider culture and a regional community. Do you need to know about Gullah culture as a whole in order to truly understand the music?
It helps to know where things come from, but not really. There are some groups out here in the Lowcountry and Gullah communities that are still singing some of these songs in the purest form. So when you hear people singing some of these spirituals, especially the gospel spirituals, that's probably the truest form of the music that people would recognize.
With us, adding drum sets, basses, standup basses, a trumpet player, electric guitar, that's where you get the contemporary assessment that we do with Ranky Tanky. If someone were to be down in the Lowcountry, in the Charleston area or the Beaufort area or some of the islands that are in our vicinity, they would definitely be quick to understand just the whole atmosphere in some of these Gullah communities.
Gullah music is a centuries-old sound. As Ranky Tanky, do you update the sound for contemporary audiences? Or do you try to stay loyal to the original sound?
Well, just because of the instrumentation of our band, that's automatically going to make it for contemporary purposes. But you can still hear and feel the original spirit of the music when you listen to Ranky Tanky onstage or on record. I think that we have caught lightning in a bottle with regards to having it right down the middle where we're still paying homage, in a respectful way, to the traditional Gullah sounds, but at the same time, giving it that contemporary assessment and contemporary fresh coat of paint to make it so that when audiences of today listen to it, it's a special blend and mix.
Is it a challenge to introduce and educate audiences to a sound that is considered to be so traditional and that's been around for so long?
I don't think it's a challenge. Our music, the way that we present it, it's been very universal. The crowds that we've played for have been a really wide variety in age, in ethnicity. But it really hasn't been a challenge for people to understand what they're listening to. There are so many things on our album that you can listen to and you could say, "I can play that on this particular genre radio. I can play that on a bluegrass radio station, I could play that one on a jazz radio station, I could play that one on a R&B radio station, I could play that one on a pop music station." The way that we have been performing and how we have crafted the sound of the band, it's pretty easy to introduce it to everybody.
What is the role or significance of Gullah in relation to the wider roots and Americana genre and community?
Geographically speaking—let's take folk music, for example. Most people put that [genre] with like the Appalachian Mountains and that region: North Carolina, Western North Carolina, the upper parts of South Carolina, West Virginia, all of those areas. Now geographically, that's not too terribly far from the Gullah region. So it's easy to have those two blending over, if you will, when you listen to some of the [sounds].
It's kind of hard to explain sometimes, unless you're listening to a couple of the [genres] back to back or side by side and you can really get a sense of how Gullah has influenced these other styles. When we're onstage and we're talking to our audience and engaging with them, it's a little bit easier for them to get it and listen to it when we speak about it and then we play right immediately after.
Your new album, Good Time, is split between covers of traditional Gullah songs and, for the first time ever, brand-new original Ranky Tanky compositions, which are also in the spirit of the Gullah tradition. How did you go about creating new Gullah songs for the album?
In the Gullah community, especially in church, there is a term that is called "raising up a song." Basically, somebody is going to stand up and they're going to start singing something that probably nobody knows at the time. And so nine times out of 10, they start with that song and they'll "raise it up." Maybe about a minute into it… somebody's going to pick up on whatever they are repeating, someone's going to harmonize to it. And then about a minute or so later, you've got the whole church and they're all in on this song. At the beginning of it, they didn't know what the song was, but they're just going off of what that person started.
Now, to carry that over to the creative process for us, there have been times when we were in soundcheck and somebody would just do something. There's a song that we have called "Freedom." [Vocalist] Quiana [Parler] was just standing at her mic… I think she was on her phone and she had read a text or something like that and she was a little frustrated and she went, "Ahh Lord, I need freedom." [Singing]
She was just sort of wailing it out, and it was comical. But she did it a couple of times and I just joined in with her, just to be funny, and I harmonized with it. And the next thing you know, [guitarist] Clay [Ross] started playing something, and he joined in and we made it a three-part harmony. And it sort of gained some traction that way. I pulled out my phone, I hit the voice memo, I put it down on the ground and everybody was sort of singing there. Next thing you know, [bassist] Kevin [Hamilton] was playing a little bassline, and the song just sort of was born right there.
That's pretty much been the nucleus of our creative process with regard to the new songs that are on the Good Time recording. You had to know the beginnings and how they would do it with the Gullah community to get to how we would do that.
The group's members come from a predominantly jazz and gospel background. Do those genres lend well to Gullah? Are there sonic and stylistic similarities?
Definitely. Gullah has been such an informant to so many different styles of music, especially jazz. The rhythm that's in the Gullah rhythm… you can incorporate that in any sort of swing pattern, you can incorporate that into a shuffle, which are two of the primary rhythms that go in jazz. So that makes sense on how you can take that Gullah from way back when and then shift it into what we think about as jazz music today. Same thing with blues, same thing with rhythm and blues. When it comes to us and playing that music now… you're going to find those increments of what we listened to as jazz today in what you hear from Ranky Tanky.
Your nomination is a big recognition for Ranky Tanky as a group, but also for Gullah as a sound and as a community. What does this sort of honor mean for you individually as well as a representative of the wider Gullah community and scene?
It's a huge honor. We’ve been very fortunate and blessed to have the support of the Gullah community, as well as our family and friends. Everyone in Charleston has continued to love and embrace and push us and encourage us to keep doing what we're doing. The city is all in.
Any sort of positive recognition, any sort of positive experience, any sort of positive event that highlights the Gullah community is something that everybody in Charleston, South Carolina, and the surrounding areas of the Lowcountry—they've just been ecstatic for us about it. Gullah is something that everybody is all in on… but we got to remember, this isn't something that was always celebrated. So any sort of celebration that can take place is something that everybody is just all in for.
Aside from the GRAMMYs, what are some of your plans and aspirations for 2020?
Continue to tour, continue to entertain and enlighten. Just trying to go forward. Everything is forward. Positive, and forward with the music.
The 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards, hosted by Alicia Keys, will be broadcast live from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, at 8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT on CBS. Learn more about where and how to watch Music's Biggest Night.