August 26, 2019
Released On October 19, 2017
Released By Resilience Music Alliance
On a Tuesday in January of last year, my mom and I hopped in a car and drove from Richmond, Virginia, to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to watch Duke (her grad school alma mater, the basketball team we bond over rooting for) play at Wake Forest. Ranky Tanky’s self-titled album spun in the CD player for the entirety of the drive as we talked about everything from her impending retirement to my advancing inability to do math by hand. Duke won the game, and I found a viable copy of Vol. 4 by Black Sabbath at the Goodwill across the parking lot from the arena, but what I’ll remember most about that trip was the drive down, and the fact that we listened to the same album for three and a half hours straight without batting an eyelash.
My mom is the one who bought the CD. When she’s intrigued by music she hears about on NPR — on All Things Considered, or on Paul Shugrue’s Out Of The Box — she’ll sometimes ship it my way unannounced. No context or explanation. It’s as pure a musical recommendation as you can get. We have Fresh Air to thank this time around; a little more than a month before our drive to North Carolina, Terry Gross spoke with three members of the band: singer Quiana Parler, guitarist Clay Ross, and trumpeter Charlton Singleton. It’s transcribed here if you’re curious. It’s a fascinating discussion of how the group got started, and of the coastal Carolina culture that gave birth to the songs they perform. I can see why my mom found them so intriguing.
Each of the tracks on Ranky Tanky is rooted in the Gullah tradition. “Gullah people from the Sea Islands of South Carolina are the descendants of Africans captured along Africa’s rice coast,” the liner notes explain. “In the so-called new world, the enslaved toiled under the hot Carolina sun along the Atlantic coast. From this bondage came Gullah, a mixture of African and English styles.” My mom was an American History professor before she entered the Episcopalian priesthood, so this was in her academic wheelhouse. She’s also a fan of musical intersectionality, and she knows I am too. What she didn’t know, and what took me a while to realize even after my copy of the CD arrived in the mail, is that I’d interviewed the founder of Ranky Tanky a few years earlier.
Back in 2013, I got to see guitarist Clay Ross perform as the frontman of Matuto, a “Brazilian bluegrass” band in which virtuosic accordion blended with flatpicked electric guitar to form something kinetic and uncanny. We chatted in advance of a gig he was playing in Richmond later that year for this RVA Magazine article. This was early in my interviewing career, but we dug deep into the motivations and meaning underlying Matuto’s brand of musical cross-pollination. We talked about colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade, and the origins of American music. “We’re chasing the thread of the one quality about all of this music that made it exciting in the first place,” he said. “Why would this style survive all of this travel and all this hardship and all this human suffering?” Looking back, it’s striking how much of that conversation applies to what he’s doing now with Ranky Tanky.
Ross is an incredible guitar player — classically trained, stylistically traveled, faster than hell. When he has a full head of flatpicking steam, as he frequently did when I saw him play with Matuto, his left hand is a blur. But his true gift may be bringing people together. Ross is not a Gullah descendant (he’s easily identifiable on the album cover in that sense), but I learned this week that Ranky Tanky, like Matuto, was Ross’ vision. He brought the idea to his current bandmates, who had inspired him early in his musical career, and who were so steeped in the Gullah tradition that an outsider’s excitement took them aback. (In that Fresh Air interview, trumpeter Charlton Singleton recalled responding to Ross’ enthusiasm by saying “Man, I’ve been listening to that since I can remember, since I was, like, 3, you know?”) You can hear that enthusiasm in the way Ross adjusts his playing to highlight the songs themselves, and the interplay between instruments. He takes solos here and there, but more often he’s linking up harmonically with trumpeter Charlton Singleton, like in “Turtle Dove” and “Knee Bone,” or he’s playing chords and melodies that round out arrangements, like in “Watch That Star.” My favorite track might be “O Death,” in which bass, trumpet, and guitar dance together around the same haunting rhythmic fire. These are deeply empathetic performances, fueled by an appreciation for the gift given to him by the people he’s playing with. “These are, like, key relationships in my life and friends,” he told Terry Gross.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how music helps us form connections. Music is one of the main ways my mom and I stay current in each other’s lives (aside from Duke basketball). And traditional music like you’ll find on this album helps all of us chart how we got where we are. “O Death” is an invitation to revisit the version on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and to consider where and when the differences originated. “Go To Sleep” has its own O Brother connection, sharing elements with the exceedingly creepy version of “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” that was recorded for the movie by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch (see OYR Issue #27). Then there’s “You Gotta Move,” a traditional gospel tune that shares a chord progression with the Mississippi Sheiks’ “Sitting On Top Of The World” — another song with a history dating back to the beginning of sound recording. Before Quiana Parler’s vocals join Ranky Tanky’s version of “You Gotta Move,” I imagine I’m hearing both songs at once, drifting along a single river of American music, mindful of the fact that it sources from a wellspring of spirituality whose depth is unknowable. It’s like staring into the night sky and emerging with a realization about how small we all are, and how lucky we are to have each other.
The connections start tenuously, through melodies and happenstance, but they have the power to change everything. I mentioned earlier that Clay Ross’ bandmates inspired him early in his career: The story goes that a young Ross was studying classical guitar but fell in love with jazz after walking into a cafe and hearing an ensemble that included Charlton Singleton and Ranky Tanky drummer Quentin Baxter. “It really changed my life,” he told Fresh Air. Had he walked into a different restaurant, what would his musical world look like? What would mine?
I started writing this blurb on Saturday, not long after I joined my bass-playing bandmate in moving his fiancee’s furniture into his house in Chesterfield alongside our group’s drummer and keyboardist. After a decade of playing music together, these people are family, but I wouldn’t know a single one of them had the keyboardist not stopped me in the hallway at work one day to say “Hey, I heard you play guitar.” On Friday I was in Norfolk, clearing the last few tubs of toy cars, high school quizzes, and middle school notes out of my childhood bedroom so my mom could convert it to a guest room. The catalyst for finally doing so? A concert. Vampire Weekend is performing just a mile from where I grew up, at the Ted Constant Convocation Center, and my mom is kindly hosting a whole crew coming down from Richmond. It’s one of those shows where you get a free CD with your ticket. I think I’ll give it to her.
Dynamic South Carolina jazz ensemble tackling Gullah in the modern day Lowcountry.
Count out four on your fingers: 1719, 1819, 1919, 2019. That’s how easy it is to move through the centuries since the first enslaved Africans arrived on the coast of North America. They came ashore at Point Comfort (history is full of such ironies) near Jamestown, VA, instead of Mexico because their Portuguese ship was taken over by British pirates. The “20 and odd” men, women, and children were stolen goods twice over: ripped away from their native Angola, then seized from their captors before being sold to Virginian colonists “for vittles,” meaning the hungry pirates traded away the people they had stolen for a little bit of something to eat. Thus began America’s journey to becoming a slave nation. Could those who exchanged food for humans have had any idea how hard that road would be, or how long the journey back? Unlikely. And, as recent events have proven, that return journey is still ongoing with no end in sight. But one thing is for sure: anyone who enjoys American music has to reckon with the fact that it would not exist in the forms we know it without the pain and horror of what began in 1619. These thoughts were going through my mind as I read this article in The New York Times‘ 1619 Project and listened to Ranky Tanky’s debut album, which draws on the Gullah culture of the Lowcountry of the Carolinas. The more I listened and the more I read, I found myself becoming increasingly humbled by the ease and joy they brought to this music, Quiana Parker’s voice flowing like water through history – and my soul. While I’m sure Parker and her colleagues, Quentin Baxter, Kevin Hamilton, Charlton Singleton, and Clay Ross, are at least partially motivated by a preservationist impulse, the sense of naturalism overcomes any history lesson fustiness. After all, saving these songs, most of which are traditional numbers, for future generations wouldn’t mean anything if they weren’t also infused with life. The slightly odd harmonies and the shifting rhythms are part of what make Ranky Tanky’s music distinct from classic jazz, but any fan of that music needs to hear this record. Scratch that — any American needs to hear this record. As the Times notes: “In the Low Country region of the Carolinas and Georgia, planters specifically requested skilled enslaved people from a region stretching from Senegal to Liberia, who were familiar with the conditions ideal for growing rice. Charleston quickly became the busiest port for people shipped from West Africa. The coiled or woven baskets used to separate rice grains from husks during harvest were a form of artistry and technology brought from Africa to the colonies. Although the baskets were utilitarian, they also served as a source of artistic pride and a way to stay connected to the culture and memory of the homeland.” Something tells me, and I imagine the members of Ranky Tanky would agree, that while those dislocated people made baskets and helped build a country, they also sang songs.
When I was very small, I thought astronauts had to make a special pact with angels so they could pass through heaven to get out to the stars. I figured heaven was up there, but it couldn’t be past Pluto, so far away, or how else would God and all that be able to keep up with what was going on here? That tenuous barrier was the most logical solution. Riding in the backseat, dancing GI Joes across my lap, I figured the same kind of thing must exist for grown-ups who, at some point, got stuck in the music they liked as teenagers and decided “they” don’t make any good music anymore. Being grown up myself now, I realize that whole NASA pact doesn’t exist, but that music one kind of does. It floats in the suburbs right along beside a million other stereotypes like boys loving football (and girls only do to get boys) and husbands loving grills (and women can’t use them). Protesting this belief doesn’t get very far, in my experience, but a genre-jumping album like the self-titled release from Ranky Tanky is a pretty good remedy. Work like this pulls together the traditional and familiar with a fresh perspective. Even being completely non-religious, hearing the soulful, old-style renditions of classic spirituals tugs at something deep inside, makes me long for those times when you hear of people truly doing good for others in the name of religion and wishing it were always so. Jazz infused, the tracks on this album feel like a spring day, a loud morning making brunch in pajamas swinging around to “Knee Bone” over the drip of coffee and sizzle of the frying pan. No matter how old you are, whether you’re a precocious eight-year-old who still lets herself get goofy or one of those adults who clings to any release from their favorite high school bands in blind faith, this album will shoot straight down your heart and get you up swaying out of your chair.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
This record got me thinking about my upcoming family vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It’s the perfect record for my aunt. My aunt is a pastor’s wife in her early sixties. She’s not overly musically inclined, but when she finds something that she likes, she’s all about it. She’s looking for a few key factors to make the cut. After all, not just any CD can grace the family mini-boom box in her kitchen. Number one, there’s got to be noticeable top-notch musicianship, but not too much. An in-your-face solo can turn her off completely, but a well-timed trumpet harmony like on “That’s Alright” will pique her interest. Obviously, there’s got to be room for The Lord, not only in the audio space, but in the songwriting as well, so she’d just adore tracks likes “Turtle Dove.” I’d say after 1999 she began looking for that indescribable southern charm in her music, obviously spoiled by the not-quite-country, not-quite-bluegrass, not-quite-gospel tour de force that was the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Ranky Tanky has that same charm, though with a more refined, structured approach. In my mind, “Go To Sleep” may as well be the musical backing to some of O Brother‘s deleted scenes. I look forward to introducing this record to her in a couple weeks. It’ll sound awfully nice against the crashing waves and easy breezes of south Nags Head.
Spiritual & moving regardless of your religious ideology or sonic predisposition.
Context is everything. I can pinpoint the day when I learned this lesson in such a way as to really make it a part of my character. I was sitting outside a pub in Ottawa with a couple of friends of mine, one whom I knew since college and her brother, who I’d just been introduced to. As we ate our brunch and talked over mundane topics on a sunny sidewalk patio, a person walked by who was striking in a lot of ways. He was tattooed from head to toe and pierced to an extent that I’d never seen before. The blank ink across his face and neck obscured his facial features and he wore so much metal that it inspired comparisons to Pinhead from the horror movie Hellraiser. I commented as such when he was out of earshot. It wasn’t that I was being derisive as much as I was just marveling at why anyone would voluntarily alienate themselves from social norms to such a visual and irreparable extent. Without even thinking about it, my friend’s brother looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Think about his context.” I wasn’t sure what he meant and he went on to explain that if I look at everyone from my own point of view, they’re going to seem distant and maybe even bizarre. But if you stop to imagine who he hangs out with, where he works, who his friends and family are, it might suddenly make sense. He might be the least tattooed of his tribe. Whoever loves him might think his tattoos and piercings are extreme in a really attractive way and maybe they encourage him routinely to continue. The things I believe him to be alienated from might be things that he has absolutely no interest in because the context in which he lives the most important days of his life is one in which the way he presents himself, is exactly as it should be. In a sense, he’s not alienated from anything that matters to him — obviously.
It was a transformative moment for me and ever since that day I’ve been actively trying to understand not just who people are but the lives that have formed and shaped them. This comes to mind as I listen to Ranky Tanky’s 2017 self-titled album. Jazz is not a world I spend a lot of time in and when viewed through the lens of something which I am not entirely familiar it can seem very distant indeed. I can relate to the wonderful percussion of Quentin E. Baxter — the quick breaks and rolls and universal in their appeal. The stand-up bass sound has always been wonderful to me as well. I prefer it to even an electric bass, but I rarely hear it in the genres of music with which I spend most of my listening time. But the gospel vocals themes, the jittery vocal stylings, the plucky reverb guitar, and the use of trumpets and horns in the melodies is something wholly unfamiliar. I’ve learned what constitutes Gullah music, a tradition that comes out of Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, known as the Lowcountry region of the United States. This is music that is unique to its region and, more importantly, to a community of people heavily influenced by a uniquely African American tradition. When I first heard it, I immediately thought of Cajun and Louisianan production styles so it was not surprising at all to find that there was a Creole connection here as well.
If you take the short view, this might seem like a record that’s outside your usual fair if you’re not in the jazz world. But there’s a reason it went to #1 on the Billboard jazz charts and like the surprising character who walked by me that day on the street, all it takes is a shift in perspective, an appreciation for their context and you realize what a truly special addition Ranky Tanky is both to the context of American jazz music, as well as that of the wider musical canon.
The year I turned 14, I was told I ruined Thanksgiving. I was told to say Grace by my mom’s husband (who only ever required it before meals on holidays), and I said I wasn’t sure it was a good idea since I didn’t know if I believed in God anymore. I already mentioned that I ruined Thanksgiving, so I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this hadn’t gone over well. If I had just said Grace like I was told, I could have saved myself the next six months of forced church and youth group three times a week (it continued until my mom finally left him), but even though I wasn’t sure I believed, it still felt disrespectful to lead a prayer to a God I wasn’t sure existed. And even if they did, one that I was angry with for allowing the years of abuse I’d already suffered. In much the same way, it feels almost disrespectful for me to approach Ranky Tanky’s eponymous 2017 release from my white, secular perspective, but I have no other to offer. I can admit, though, that despite having no connection to the roots bared here, I found the entire thing incredibly moving. I admire the desire to keep the Gullah tradition alive, as its history has been largely overwritten, and I found myself wishing I could get it on a more fundamental level. But music has always been a way of feeling connected to something bigger than myself – whatever that something may be. Ranky Tanky brought that feeling of connection, and I can see myself returning to it again and again.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Utilizing jazz fusion to modernize a rooted sound, Ranky Tanky brings a culture & region blazing into the 21st century.
I had two different ideas for what I wanted to talk about for Ranky Tanky’s eponymous record. Since I wasn’t able to conjure enough material from either one individually for this issue, I decided to combine them and hope for the best. The first idea was that I’m always fascinated by songs inspired by, or written about, religion. Being an atheist (and former Christian), it’s something of a curio to hear music that’s in thanks or praise of a deity. Religion definitely isn’t my thing and I tend to avoid it whenever possible, but I’m not one of those militant types that will readily debate you on the subject. It’s like anchovies on pizza – I’m not a fan, but if you like it, then that’s cool. It ain’t hurting me any. The second idea was, I noticed that Ranky Tanky hit what I call the name trifecta — that is, the artist’s name matches the album and song titles. I first came across this concept in high school when I heard Black Sabbath’s first album. I honestly thought it was a misprint. Until then, I hadn’t ever heard of a band naming a song after itself; albums, sure, but never a song. Fast forward to June of this year. I created a Spotify playlist called “same name” that is a collection of name trifectas. As of this writing, it’s only 18 songs and an hour-n-change long, but it’s pretty eclectic considering its small size. The playlist includes Iron Maiden, Run The Jewels, Wilco, Pennywise, Village People, and New Kids On The Block. And now you can add Ranky Tanky’s jazzy and jammy World Music to that, making it even more diverse.
If anyone asked me what makes a great soul record, I would say that it’s the respect and incorporation of the roots of black music. Until today, I’d only really gone as far back as gospel music when tracing the origins, but after listening to Ranky Tanky, I’m reminded that soul music goes much deeper than that. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that there’s an entire history of families, stories, music, and traditions minimized and, in some cases, erased from the black lineage, especially as a Generation Y (or Z, I dunno) black man who is hundreds of years removed from those times. Ranky Tanky makes it easy to see where the music came from and where it went. “O Death” carries a melody similar to “Wade In The Water,” an old gospel song that we sang in church when I was growing up. This record makes me wonder how many of those old melodies and progressions that influenced my music so much came from a deeper source? I’m certainly going to spend some time searching to find that place, because I am strongly of the belief that if you really want to move forward, you have to, first, go all the way back to the root of where you’re coming from. I think that listening to this album was an important step forward for me, as a music listener, artist, and black man.
This past weekend, there was a huge gathering in Hampton, Virginia to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of enslaved Africans arriving in America, thus creating a rotten, but sizeable section of our nation’s foundation, one we will most likely never truly recover from. Living in Richmond, I know the drive to Hampton pretty well, and its steeped in American history, from the signs of Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Jamestown that fill up a good portion of 64 East, to the smaller plaques that earmark the brisk passage to the idyllic Yorktown Beach. But the American history on display in Virginia is more often than not smeared by the slave trade that dominated the two hundred and fifty years of life in this area. Even Revolutionary War battle sites, where people sermonize the noble American cause against the British, carries a faint, but foul odor when considering thousands upon thousands of slaves “defected” to the British, many of which ended up remaining in shackles after the war. I bring all this up not because it’s in the news, but also because it ties in exactly with the music we covered this week: the jazz take on traditional Gullah music as offered up by South Carolina group Ranky Tanky on their self-titled debut. The Gullah people occupy land further south of Virginia, traditionally the area from Wilmington, NC to Jacksonville, FL though now mostly in the coastal area and Sea Islands of South Carolina, but their plight is one that comes directly after Virginia defined the idea of New World “labor.” I’m not well-stepped in the Gullah tradition or sound, as I’m sure most people reading this or even stumbling upon Ranky Tanky are, but just from this modern-take on things, their influence seems incalculable, like practically every variation of Spirituals that formed in the South. Specifically, I was caught by the connection between their rendition of “Been In The Storm” and Delta Rae’s “Bottom Of The River.” You can find a thousand versions of “Been In The Storm” (or “Been In The Storm Too Long” as it’s more commonly titled), but it’s this Gullah take on a particularly affecting spiritual that spells out the genre’s influence better than anything. You can hear the haunting atmosphere in both songs, but that atmosphere takes on different forms in each song, thanks to the percussion. Delta Rae’s is much more immediate, with the percussion beating your door down as the vocals try to match it, whereas Ranky Tanky’s feels sparse, like a slow-moving threat the vocals are trying to warn about as best they can. It’s not a great example, but one that stuck out having seen Delta Rae in concert several, several times this decade and the fact that they hail from an area adjacent to the Gullah: Durham, North Carolina. Their hometown is not exactly next door to Gullah’s birthplace, but if you take modern traffic into the equation, it would take me as long to get from Richmond to Hampton as it would to go from Durham to Wilmington, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the band is well-stepped in the Gullah tradition, even if indirectly and unconsciously. I harp on Delta Rae because of my experience with them. It’s amazing that I can know an artist or band so well and still found myself surprised by their influences, but it’s also a testament to the reach and resonance of the Gullah sound. I’m positive there are dozens of other bands and artists from that area who carry bits and pieces of the genre in their DNA – from their use of warm, inviting earworms (“That’s Alright“) to clap-back singalongs (“Ranky Tanky“) – and thanks to Ranky Tanky, I’ve got a much better chance of catching those bits and pieces, and appreciating them infinitely more. We may never come to terms with our nation’s true heritage, but the least we can do is make sure vibrant pieces of their uprooted culture survive today, and is celebrated just for that.
After Robots by BLK JKS
Chosen By Jeremy Shatan