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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Ranky Tanky On The Lasting Influence Of Gullah Music And Being Global Genre Ambassadors

Ranky Tanky

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

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Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Ranky Tanky On The Lasting Influence Of Gullah Music And Being Global Genre Ambassadors

The South Carolina quintet is making GRAMMY history and bringing the genre to the international mainstage at this year's awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 22, 2020 - 07:00 pm

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?

Of course.

"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.

Read: Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Black Pumas On Their Breakout Year, Creative Process And "New Chapter"

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.

Read: Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Nathalie Joachim On The Haitian Musical Roots Of 'Fanm d'Ayiti,' Community Building & Standing In Her Truth

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. 

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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.

2020 GRAMMY Awards: Complete Nominees List

Allen Hughes' "The Defiant Ones" Wins Best Music Film | 2018 GRAMMY

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Allen Hughes' "The Defiant Ones" Wins Best Music Film | 2018 GRAMMY

Director Allen Hughes' four-part documentary takes home Best Music Film honors for its portrayal of the unlikely partnership that changed the music business

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 02:09 am

The team behind The Defiant Ones celebrated a big win for Best Music Film at the 60th GRAMMY Awards. The crew awarded include director Allen Hughes and producers Sarah Anthony, Fritzi Horstman, Broderick Johnson, Gene Kirkwood, Andrew Kosove, Laura Lancaster, Michael Lombardo, Jerry Longarzo, Doug Pray & Steven Williams.

In a year rife with quality music documentaries and series, the bar has been set high for this dynamic category. The Defiant Ones is a four-part HBO documentary telling the story of an unlikely duo taking the music business by storm seems better suited for fantastical pages of a comic book, but for engineer-turned-mogul Jimmy Iovine and super-producer Dr. Dre, it's all truth.The Defiant Ones recounts their histories, their tribulations and their wild success. These include first-hand accounts from those who were there in Iovine's early days, such as Bruce Springsteen and U2's Bono, as well as those on board when Dre and Iovine joined forces, such as Snoop Dogg and Eminem.

The competition was stiff as the category was filled with compelling films such as One More Time With Feeling, Two Trains Runnin', Soundbreaking, and Long Strange Trip. 

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Portugal. The Man To Aida Cuevas: Backstage At The 2018 GRAMMYs

Photos: WireImage.com

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Portugal. The Man To Aida Cuevas: Backstage At The 2018 GRAMMYs

Also see James Fauntleroy, Reba McIntire, Latroit, and more after they stepped off the GRAMMY stage

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 05:39 am

What do artists do the moment they walk off the GRAMMY stage from presenting, accepting an award or performing? Now, you can find out.

Take a peak at Album Of The Year GRAMMY winner Bruno Mars, 60th GRAMMY Awards Host James Cordon, Cardi B minutes before her electrifying performance of "Finesse," and more!

Also see Best Pop Duo/Group Performance GRAMMY winners Portugal. The Man posing with their first career GRAMMY Award, Best Roots Gospel Album GRAMMY winner Reba McIntire right after she walked offstage, Best R&B Song GRAMMY winner James Fauntleroy, Best Remixed Recording GRAMMY winner Latroit, and many more, with these photos from backstage during the 60th GRAMMY Awards.

Getting The Latest Music News Just Got Easier. Introducing: GRAMMY Bot. Find it On KIK and Facebook Messenger 

Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Bruno Mars Wins Song Of The Year | 2018 GRAMMYs

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Bruno Mars Wins Song Of The Year | 2018 GRAMMYs

The Hawaiian native takes home Song Of The Year for "That's What I Like" at the 60th GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 29, 2018 - 08:11 am

Feeling the 24K Magic, Bruno Mars' successful progress through the categories he's been nominated in at the 60th GRAMMY Awards picked up another one at Song Of The Year for "That's What I Like."


Christopher Brody Brown and Philip Lawrence co-write with Mars under the name Shampoo Press & Curl. The other winning songwriters for Mars' hit tonight in this category are James Fauntleroy and production team "The Sterotypes" — Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus and  Jonathan Yip.

For additional "Finesse" on stage at the 60th GRAMMY Awards, Mars was joined by Cardi B for a reprise of their 148-million-views hit remix.

The Album Of The Year GRAMMY Award wrapped up the night and wrapped up Bruno Mars' complete rampage through his six nominated categories — now six wins.

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