Ranky Tanky, the South Carolina quintet whose debut album soared to the #1 position on the Billboard, iTunes and Amazon Jazz Charts, makes its Vermont debut at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1, at the Barre Opera House. It’s a talented quintet with a unique perspective on “traditional” music.
Ranky Tanky performs music that comes through the filter of Gullah, a West African language that means “a people blessed by God.” “Ranky Tanky” translates loosely as “Work It,” or “Get Funky!” This Charleston-based group performs timeless African-American music from the southeastern Sea Island region of the United States, but with a decidedly modern and genre-bending style.
Their music runs the gamut from playful game songs to ecstatic shouts, from heartbreaking spirituals to delicate lullabies. The band mixes the low-country traditions with influences of jazz, gospel, funk and R&B.
The band takes its style from the South Carolina low country, where life is laced with African ways. Their music is rooted in a culture that has shaped American art, food, language and attitude. That culture, its people and their mother tongue is called Gullah.
The Gullah people from the Sea Islands of South Carolina are the descendants of Africans captured along Africa’s rice coast. In America the enslaved people toiled under the hot Carolina sun along the Atlantic coast. From this bondage came Gullah, a mixture of African and English styles.
This culture has influences across America. Scholars estimate that a third of the people of African descent in this country are the children of those enslaved ancestors who came through the port of Charleston.
Ranky Tanky’s members include four Gullah descendants and one disciple who have joined together to revive a heartland of American music born in their own backyards. The band is Quentin Baxter, drums and percussion; Kevin Hamilton, bass; Quiana Parler, vocalist; Clay Ross, guitar and vocals; and Charlton Singleton, trumpet and vocals. The band’s story starts in 1998 while studying music at the College of Charleston. They founded a popular local jazz quartet called “The Gradual Lean.” Singleton, Ross, Hamilton and Baxter were an in-demand jazz quartet on the Charleston scene before splitting off to each make their way as freelance musicians, working with musicians such as Houston Person, Freddy Cole, Cyro Baptista and René Marie.
Those years as freelancers helped each member gain valuable experience, while developing a deeper appreciation for the Gullah tradition they came from. Ross, the guitarist, is the band’s non-black member. The band eventually reformed with vocalist Quiana Parler to celebrate the mix of spirituals and gutbucket blues that mark the low-country mainland and Sea Islands — music that developed from a self-contained culture of descendants of enslaved Africans that introduced such indelible parts of the American songbook as “Kum Bah Yah” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”
Ranky Tanky’s first album, “Ranky Tanky,” contains a variety of spirituals and gospel songs, a much less dramatic rendering of “O Death” than the Ralph Stanley version, along with an improbable version of the Rolling Stones “You Gotta Move” and the lullaby “Go to Sleep” among the 13 tracks. The band says in its liner notes, “With influences of jazz, blues, gospel and folk music, our repertoire is built on re-imagined arrangements of playful game songs, ecstatic shouts, heartbreaking spirituals and delicate lullabies from the Gullah tradition.”
Ranky Tanky did its homework with songs that were sourced from early field recordings of artists such as Bessie Jones, John Davis and Laura Rivers. “Our contemporary interpretations have been shaped by the diverse musical backgrounds and living Gullah influences of our members.”
The band’s sound is unique even though their material sounds familiar. Ranky Tanky will surely have the Barre Opera House rocking with its blend of so many styles that emerge as a singular sound.
Tickets for Ranky Tanky are $22-$36, with discounts for members, seniors, students and the disabled — order online at www.barreoperahouse.org or call the Barre Opera House at 802-476-8188. The Opera House is at 6 North Main St., Barre.