It’s been a whirlwind year for Ranky Tanky. Named for the Gullah phrase meaning to “get funky,” the rising stars of the low country released its debut album in October 2017 in homage to the Gullah culture of the region. Just two months later, they were topping jazz charts and touring the country.
EU Jacksonville spoke with Clay Ross, guitarist and vocalist of the Charleston-based quintet about the band’s meteoric rise, infusing modern jazz with lowcountry flavors and a shared history with the First Coast.
“It’s definitely been kind of a big breakthrough year for us. We released our album almost a year ago and shortly thereafter we were picked up by Terry Gross on NPR on the show called Fresh Air. One big media hit like that with someone who has such a strong listenership can really lead to a breakthrough,” says Ross. “Our album when straight to the number one position on the Billboard, Amazon, and iTunes jazz charts. We’ve been touring ever since and really have been amazed. It’s been pretty powerful, and we’re grateful and taking advantage of the opportunity.”
“Gullah” comes from West African language and translates to “a people blessed by God.” It’s with this spirit that Ranky Tanky featuring Ross, vocalist Quiana Parler, bassist Kevin Hamilton, Charlton Singleton on trumpet and drummer Quentin Baxter perform the timeless music of Gullah culture. From playful game songs and high energy shouts to mournful spirituals to delicate lullabies, the musical roots of the southeastern Sea Island region are “rank” and fertile grounds.
The South Carolina natives first came together in 1998 to form a seminal Charleston jazz quartet. Known as one of the low-country’s most celebrated vocalists, Parler joined the group and inspired a revival of the “Heartland of American Music” born in their own backyards.
According to Ross, the Gullah culture is ubiquitous to the low country, but, despite the accessible cultural offering, it wasn’t considered as an anchor for band’s sound. Tracing the history of the music curated and documented as part of the Gullah folklore motivated the band to revisit its approach of jazz standards.
“Being from there, I wouldn’t say it was something we’ve taken [for] granted, but it wasn’t anything any of us thought we could expand on. We’re all jazz musicians, and we’re interested in playing modern and contemporary jazz music,” Ross says.
“I think as we toured, we noticed that no one was really doing that, and we felt like there was a need for it, and we were qualified to do it. We wanted to share this music with the world as best we could. It started with fairly modest goals and expectations, and we quickly saw that we couldn’t exceed that. People reacted really positively to this idea and our interpretation of the music. There are so many things to be inspired by.”
Ross says the music of Ranky Tanky is well-received by audiences, and he attributes the positive reaction to the connection to the music and the history. “It has a lot to offer. It’s really joyful music and spiritual music. It speaks to people’s heart and soul and helps them feel good,” he says. “I think the world needs music like that. Whether people want to dig deeper and uncover the cultural story with our music or not, we encourage them to do that. But even at a surface level, this music has a lot to offer. It’s feel-good music.”
Touring is still so new for Ranky Tanky that the band has yet to visit any city twice. “Being our first year, we don’t have a lot to compare it to. This will be our first ever performance in Jacksonville, and that’s been the case with almost everything we’ve done this year. If anyone is showing up anywhere, it’s amazing,” Ross says. “We have great turnouts at our shows. A couple of dates on this tour are either sold out or very close to sold out. We’re really grateful to share this with people and hope that they will turn out for this concert.”
This is the band’s first visit to Jacksonville and he encourages audiences to discover its shared heritage within the music. Says Ross, “Jacksonville has Gullah heritage as well. It’s along what they call the Gullah-Geechee Corridor. I would invite everyone to please come and explore their roots with us. This music is resonating all over the world, and we’re happy to be a part of that lineage of musicians to share this music. I hope audiences will come and have a wonderful time. I think they’re going to walk away with not only a good feeling but a sense of pride, because this music belongs to them.”
Ranky Tanky gets funky October 12th at the Ritz Theatre and Museum, tickets available here.