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With every note, Ranky Tanky honors an ancestry

Ranky Tanky play Saturday at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club in Portsmouth, N.H., and Tuesday at Boston’s City Winery.Sully Sullivan

How many folks are familiar with Gullah culture? That’s the question trumpeter and resident historian Charlton Singleton often asks the audience at shows featuring his South Carolina-based band, Ranky Tanky.

When he’s answered with blank stares, as is typically the case, Singleton tries another tack: How many know the folk song “Kumbaya”? How about “O Death”? How many have played patty cake, or tasted gumbo?

All this heritage is rooted in the Gullah-Geechee Corridor, the barrier islands that run along the southeast United States seaboard from North Carolina to northern Florida. You may not have heard the name Ranky Tanky, but their music is in your bones. In the Gullah language, the phrase means “get funky.”


The band members, who play Saturday at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club in Portsmouth, N.H., and Tuesday at Boston’s City Winery, have been disseminating the music of their native South Carolina since the release of their self-titled debut album in 2017, which topped the Billboard jazz chart. It’s a kind of folk-jazz hybrid that draws on spirituals, children’s rhymes, and other age-old, communal singing traditions.

The core members of the group — Singleton, drummer Quentin Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton, and guitarist Clay Ross — played together in local Charleston jazz groups around the late 1990s. A few years ago Ross, who now lives in Brooklyn, reconnected with his old mates with an idea: He suggested they play Gullah music.

From the beginning, Singleton and his colleagues “wanted to make sure we were being respectful to the music and how we present it,” he says. “This is life. This is Gullah. This is our ancestry.”

It is not, in fact, Ross’s ancestry: He is the group’s sole white member. But he is a South Carolina native. He’s also a teaching artist at Carnegie Hall and has toured the globe as a cultural ambassador for the State Department.


Singer Quiana Parler did not grow up in the Gullah culture, but it’s part of her ancestry. She had a respectable run on season two of “American Idol.” That led to some high-profile gigs with Maroon 5, Kelly Clarkson, and others. She’s known the other four members for years, Baxter and Hamilton since grade school.

Singleton enrolled at Berklee in the fall of 1989. His aim at the time was to become a band director in middle or high school. Though his stay in Boston was brief — he left after one semester to finish his degree at his mother’s alma mater, South Carolina State University — it was, he says, memorable.

Fellow Berklee students at the time included the hard-bop trumpeter Roy Hargrove and Dwayne Burno, the acoustic bass player who became one of New York City’s most sought-after jazz musicians until his premature death (like Hargrove’s, of kidney disease), in 2013.

“There were a lot of soon-to-be mega-superstars in the jazz world still roaming around campus, doing their thing,” Singleton recalls.

For a time in the mid-1990s, he played in the horn section of a Charleston-area ska band that had some success, playing on bills with the Toasters and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Later, he was a cofounder of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra. He stepped down from his post as that organization’s music director in 2018, when it became clear that Ranky Tanky would be his main focus.


He’s the keeper of the flame. His family is enormous; he’s the youngest of 55 grandchildren. In 1898, Singleton’s grandfather fled Capers Island, about 15 miles north of Charleston, on a raft with his family during a massive hurricane. The family settled in the tiny mainland town of Awendaw, where “Big Daddy,” as everyone called him, would become a worship leader.

Singleton takes great pride in the music of his family’s ancestors. He cites a growing body of scholarship that traces the origins of jazz back from its long-accepted cradle, in New Orleans’s Congo Square, to the Gullah-Geechee Corridor. Charleston’s role as the country’s largest slave port meant that most West Africans came through the area first. Many were then transported around the Florida coast, passing through the Caribbean islands, to the Gulf of Mexico and the slave markets of New Orleans.

Some listeners hear the rhythms of that city’s second-line parades in Ranky Tanky’s music, Singleton says.

“You could argue that all that stuff happened in the Charleston area before it got around the bottom of the US,” he says. “That’s how we get to jazz and improvisation.” Critically, while New Orleans and many Caribbean nations shared the Carnival traditions of Mardi Gras, such public celebrations were forbidden in Charleston.

“That’s some facts there,” Singleton says.

Ranky Tanky’s first album featured their versions of some of Gullah culture’s most recognizable songs — “You Gotta Move” (covered by the Rolling Stones), “Join the Band” (a Little Feat favorite). Their 2019 follow-up, “Good Time,” continues in that vein, with the band’s takes on “Sometime,” the a cappella Bessie Jones performance that Moby morphed into his biggest hit, and “Pay Me My Money Down,” the Georgia Sea Islands work song that Pete Seeger and the Weavers adopted as their own.


But “Good Time” also leans toward more original compositions. The Afrobeat-flavored “Freedom” grew out of a simple lament Parler invoked during a soundcheck, Singleton says. After a frustrating phone call she shouted, “Lord, I just need some freedom right now!”

The song could be about anything that ails you, he says: “It could be personal, like an addiction, or a bad relationship.” In that sense, it’s universal. We all have ailments.

But as the song developed, it took on some of the anguish of the social justice protests of recent years. “Oh-oh say, can you see?” the band sings.

In that sense, it’s like everything else they’ve been doing.

“‘Timeless’ is a word we use quite a bit,” says Singleton.


At Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club, 135 Congress St., Portsmouth, N.H., Jan. 8 at 7:30 p.m. $20-$55; jimmysoncongress.com. At City Winery, 80 Beverly St., Boston, Jan. 11 at 8 p.m. $30-$40; citywinery.com/boston.

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.