Fresh ears. Fresh eyes. Sometimes it takes an outsider to fall in love with something and make you appreciate what had become invisible. Guitarist Clay Ross was raised in Charleston on the doorstep of Gullah music, a tradition created by descendants of African slaves along the southeast US coast, but didn’t connect with Gullah music until he’d lived in New York and travelled the world learning about classical, jazz and Brazilian guitar. Deeply moved by the a cappella passages augmented with only claps and stomps celebrating themes of strength and joy in the face of challenges, Ross suggested playing Gullah to members of the jazz quartet he’d been in 20 years earlier.
This brought scoffs — after all, trumpeter Charlton Singleton’s grandpa often gathered great-grandkids to clap and act out the rhymes; for most of the quartet, at church and at home, Gullah blended in like wallpaper. Who would want to hear music they could hear down the road on the playground or in church?
But percussionist Quentin Baxter remembered Quiana Parler, an opera-trained singer who at 14 had wowed a variety show he’d organized and whose vocals would ignite this refreshed, now guitar and horn blessed music. With Parler and original quartet bassist Kevin Hamilton, Ranky Tanky (Gullah for “get funky”), they formed in 2016.
Ranky Tanky released their self-titled album in 2017 and found themselves at No. 1 on two Billboard charts (Jazz and Contemporary Jazz) two months later. After touring Canada, Europe and most of the States, Singleton understood why this updated Gullah music resonated with people of diverse backgrounds. “No matter where you go, everybody’s got some kind of turmoil they’ve been through.” To listen to Parler’s vocals sweep, soar and tiptoe through seasoned spirituals, childhood rhymes, old field songs and cheeky, come-hop-with-me dance tunes is to be haunted by the history of innocence, joy, fear and hope.
Biography by Mary-Lynn Wardle