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Ranky Tanky's Self-Titled Debut Makes Traditional Gullah Songs New

Jan 11, 2018
Originally published on January 11, 2018 7:26 pm

The Gullah people of coastal Georgia and South Carolina trace their language and culture back to their West and Central African ancestors. Among the Gullah's unique contributions to African-American culture is a deeply distilled repertoire of spirituals and work songs. On the self-titled debut by the quintet Ranky Tanky, Gullah songs are lively, soulful honey to the ears.

The four core members of the band started as a jazz combo, fresh out of college in Charleston, S.C. Three of them grew up in Gullah country, steeped in its creolized cuisine, lifestyle and arts. But the idea of creating a band dedicated to Gullah songs only came together when they recruited Quiana Parler, their lead vocalist. Parler is Gullah herself, and an alumnus of American Idol as well.

Some of the oldest known African-American spirituals come from the Gullah, and they reflect a life of faith under harsh circumstances. On "Turtle Dove," Parler sings: "When I get to heaven I know the rules; kick 'em right down to the bathing pool."

But even when the lyrics are sad or stern, Ranky Tanky brings playfulness and warmth to the material, blending in elements of blues, jazz and R&B. On "Sink 'Em Low," a simple but powerful rendition of a traditional work song, Parler infuses the solemn lyrics with funk and soul. "Sink 'em low, boy, sink 'em low," she sings with joy. "Sink 'em low, boy, raise 'em high."

Everyone pulls their weight in this tight, efficient combo. But Quiana Parler's vocal is in a league of its own. With her range, power and control of subtle ornamentation, she could bring down the house all by herself. Her voice is the primary instrument of "Been in The Storm," backed by sparse, reverent drums.

Ranky Tanky brings freshness and uplift to overlooked Americana. In a pop music milieu ever hungry for newness, this group proves that the right musicians can make the past new all over again.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ranky Tanky is a quintet that digs into the culture of the Gullah people from coastal Georgia and South Carolina. The Gullah trace their language and culture back to their West and Central African ancestors. And in Ranky Tanky's debut album, the group explores the Gullah repertoire of spirituals and work songs. Banning Eyre has this review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANKY TANKY")

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Who is the greatest? We are the greatest. Are you sure - yeah. Positive - yeah. Definitive - yeah - all right, all right.

BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: In the hands of Ranky Tanky, Gullah songs are lively, soulful honey to the ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANKY TANKY")

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Old lady come from Booster, had two hens and a rooster. The rooster died. The old lady cried. Now she don't eat eggs like she used to.

EYRE: The four core members of this band started as a jazz combo fresh out of college in Charleston, S.C. Three of them grew up in Gullah country, steeped in its creolized cuisine, lifestyle and arts. But the idea of creating a band dedicated to Gullah songs only came together when they recruited their lead vocalist. Quiana Parler is Gullah herself and an alumnus of "American Idol."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURTLE DOVE")

QUIANA PARLER: (Singing) When I get to heaven, I know the rules - kick them right down to the bathing pool.

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Adam and Eve, door to door - Adam and Eve, don't tell that to me. Meet me at the door. Don't tell that to me. Sa sa la do, oh, sa la so ree (ph).

EYRE: Some of the oldest-known African-American spirituals come from the Gullah, and they reflect a life of faith under harsh circumstances. But even when the lyrics are sad or stern, Ranky Tanky brings playfulness and warmth to the material, blending in elements of blues, jazz and R&B. Listen to the funk and soul in this deeply grooving rendition of a traditional work song, "Sink Em Low."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINK EM LOW")

PARLER: (Singing) So sink 'em low, boy. Sink 'em low. Sink 'em low, boy. Raise 'em high.

EYRE: Everyone pulls their weight in this tight, efficient combo. But Quiana Parler's vocal is in a league of its own. With her range, power and control of subtle ornamentation, she could bring the house down all by herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEEN IN THE STORM")

PARLER: (Singing) I've been in the storm so long. You know that I've been in the storm so long, saying, oh, Lord, give me more time to pray. You know I've been in the storm so very long.

EYRE: Ranky Tanky brings freshness and uplift to overlooked Americana. In a pop music landscape ever hungry for newness, this group proves that the right musicians can make the past new again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S ALRIGHT")

PARLER: (Singing) My, my, Mama, how you walk in line. Your (unintelligible) may slip, and your soul may lull - says my soul going to sit up in the kingdom. That's all right.

SHAPIRO: Banning Eyre is senior producer for Afropop Worldwide. He reviewed the debut album from Ranky Tanky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT'S ALRIGHT")

PARLER: (Singing) My soul's going to sit up in the kingdom. That's all right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.