Ranky Tanky Builds On The Music And Culture Of Slave Descendants
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.
(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.
BIANCULLI: Today, three members of the band Ranky Tanky perform music from their debut album. The band's name, like the music they play, comes from the Gullah tradition, the culture of slaves and their descendants in the South Carolina low country and islands. Charlton Singleton, who plays trumpet in Ranky Tanky, says he started hearing Gullah music when he was very young from his grandfather who grew up in the Gullah culture.
CHARLTON SINGLETON: He would sit all of us down. And he would sing to us. And he would clap to us. And I think that's where I get my music from.
BIANCULLI: Their new album is called "Good Time." And Justin Chang reviews Quentin Tarantino's new film "Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood." First, the news.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. A five-piece band from South Carolina with the memorable name of Ranky Tanky has a new album called "Good Time." It's only the group's second CD, its first came out in 2017. But Ranky Tanky already has established itself as a prominent example of Gullah music and culture.
Gullah is the culture influenced by West Africa that developed among the slaves and their descendants living on the South Carolina coast and Sea Islands. Gullah comes with its own dialect, food traditions and music. The band's name, Ranky Tanky, is itself a Gullah expression which loosely translates as work it or get funky.
The members of Ranky Tanky are from South Carolina. The band is made up of four jazz musicians who started playing together nearly 20 years ago, went their separate ways and then reunited for Ranky Tanky. They're joined by lead singer Quiana Parler.
Today we're going to feature their performance on FRESH AIR and their interview with Terry from 2017, when their first album was released. Visiting that day were lead singer Quiana Parler, guitarist and singer Clay Ross and trumpeter and singer Charlton Singleton. Here's a song from their new album with the main vocal by Charlton Singleton, which kind of introduces the band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOO LIE LOO")
RANKY TANKY: Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Just in the kitchen. Shoo lie loo. With a handful of biscuits. Shoo lie loo. We're Ranky Tanky. Shoo lie loo. Fly away over yonder. Shoo lie loo. I'm just in the kitchen. Shoo lie loo. With a handful of biscuits. Shoo lie loo. (Unintelligible). Shoo lie loo. Fly away over yonder. Shoo lie loo. Just in the kitchen. Shoo lie loo. With a handful of biscuits. Shoo lie loo. (Unintelligible). Shoo lie loo. Fly away over yonder. Shoo lie loo. Just in the kitchen. Shoo lie loo. With a handful of biscuits. Shoo lie loo. (Unintelligible). Shoo lie loo. Fly away over yonder. Shoo lie loo. Just in the kitchen. Shoo lie loo. With a handful of biscuits. Shoo lie loo. (Unintelligible). Shoo lie loo. Fly away over yonder. Shoo lie loo. I'm just in the kitchen. Shoo lie loo. With the biscuits. Shoo lie loo. I'm Charlton Singleton. Shoo lie loo. Fly away over yonder. Shoo lie loo. Fly away over yonder. Shoo lie loo. Everybody come and sing it. Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo loo. Shoo lie loo. Sing shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Everybody come and sing it. Shoo lie loo. Come on and sing it. Shoo lie loo. Sing with me, yeah. Shoo lie loo. Sing shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Come here, everybody. Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo. Shoo lie loo.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Clay Ross, Quiana Parler, Charlton Singleton, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to have you here. And thank you for bringing your instruments.
SINGLETON: Well, thank you for having us.
CLAY ROSS: Thank you.
QUIANA PARLER: Thank you for having us.
GROSS: My pleasure. So, Clay, you organized the band. It was your idea to do this band playing songs from Gullah culture.
ROSS: Yes, ma'am.
GROSS: But you are not from that culture. (Laughter) You grew up in Piedmont, N.C.
ROSS: No, I'm not. Yeah, it's a little bit...
GROSS: You moved to Charleston, S.C., for college. I should also mention you're white. You're the white member of the band.
ROSS: I'm white? What? Are you - no, I am white. You got me.
GROSS: So how come you're the one who started the band?
SINGLETON: You broke the news for him.
ROSS: So I basically grew up in the suburbs of Anderson, S.C., which is the Piedmont and later discovered - you know, the Piedmont is quite a hotbed of Southern roots music as well. But I wasn't really exposed to that greatly growing up.
When I came to Charleston, I was playing classical guitar and studying guitar at the school. And an early memory is walking into a cafe called Clara's Coffee Shop (ph), and I heard this jazz group, and it was one of my first experiences even hearing a live jazz band. And it was Charlton Singleton and Quentin Baxter, who are now, you know, members of Ranky Tanky.
And they were playing, I think, "Autumn Leaves" or some jazz standard. And then, you know, in the same breath, they'd launch into "Wade In The Water," a song that is just ubiquitous in Gullah culture. I wasn't really familiar with what that was at that time, but it's something that - it just spoke to me, and it moved me, and it really changed my life. And I started to pursue jazz, study jazz music and bug them relentlessly.
ROSS: ...To make music with me.
ROSS: And they became...
GROSS: OK, let me stop you there. So, Charlton, when Clay was bugging you to do Gullah music, what was your reaction?
SINGLETON: Well, at first, back then, what he's talking about now, he was just trying to learn how to play jazz.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
SINGLETON: It wasn't until - and that was in the mid-to-late '90s. But then about three years ago, maybe about 2 1/2 or three years ago, you know, we were all still friends, and we all kept in contact and everything.
And Clay came up with this idea. And he was like, hey, man, have y'all ever heard this song? You know, and he would play something like "That's Alright" for us, or he would play just some Gullah song. And Quentin and I looked at each other. We're like, of course we know that song.
And he was like, you know, isn't this great? And I was like, yeah. He's like, and how did you hear that song? Man, I've been listening to that since I can remember, since I was, like, 3, you know? And so Clay came up with the idea of doing this band. And, you know, like he said, you know, on a few occasions, you know, being, you know, from the outside, you know, looking in and thinking about the music and hearing it and how, you know, it's just not as popular or not as existent as it is where we're from, you know, out in the world...
ROSS: And it was funny when I first came with - to them with the idea - I mean, to make a long story short, they were early mentors of mine, and we kept in touch. And I left for New York City almost 15 years ago to pursue jazz music. And lots of, you know, roads happened musically and opportunities and things.
But these are, like, key relationships in my life and friends. And everywhere I'd go, I'd - especially involved in the world music community - I'd see all these groups celebrating music from all over the world.
And I said, well, man, no one is really doing this contemporary version of our music from South Carolina and this music that sort of by happenschance (ph) was music that inspired me deeply and even as a young man. And I wanted to try to share that with the world, and I knew exactly who I wanted to do it with. And when I first brought them the idea, they really laughed at me, man (laughter). I mean, they were like - they were kind of like, well, why would we do that? (Laughter).
SINGLETON: Well, I mean, think about it. Think about it. I mean, just - that's how we grew up, so it was every day. So, you know, you just - after a while, you figure, you know, everybody knows it or that's just the norm for me.
GROSS: So, Quiana, you didn't grow up with Gullah culture either, right?
PARLER: No, I didn't. But, you know, the songs I grew up with in church. And even if it wasn't the exact words, it was the styling. So Charlton likes to say, you know, the elders in the church would say, we'd like to raise up a song. You know, whatever you're going through, you sing at the moment.
SINGLETON: And if you look at a lot of the - you know, the names of the tracks and you listen to the songs, then you can hear at least something in one of those songs where, you know, it's a - cry. It's a cry for, you know, help from the Lord or it's something that has something to do with spirituality.
PARLER: Thanking the Lord.
SINGLETON: You know, but there are also little kids' games and things like that. But that's part of the culture. It's all wrapped up in that Gullah culture.
GROSS: Yeah, you mentioned the kids games. And a couple of the songs on your new "Ranky Tanky" album have kids' rhymes in them that are very rhythmic.
ROSS: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: And so can you talk about and maybe sing a few of those rhymes and tell us how they figure into the music?
ROSS: Well, yeah, that'd be great. Why don't we do the "One-ry, Two-ry" (ph)? This is a really good one.
SINGLETON: Oh, yeah.
ROSS: And actually, just to preface this because I want to make sure that I honor someone who really did a lot to make this band possible from a previous generation, who is Bessie Jones. And I think without her foresight and will and drive to record and document a lot of these songs - she made a book with Alan Lomax's wife that - called "Step It Down," which is an amazing book that illustrates a lot of these games. And this is where we've revived, and been inspired and gotten a lot of these songs directly from this book. And this next one is like that.
These are two different little poems, I guess. And it's cool because they say that you almost could see - hear how these are, like, from Celtic roots, almost, and the kind of Gaelic - almost a Gaelic kind of language. And you can hear the direct pollination of cultures, which is, you know, African, West African rhythmic culture and, like, a British colonial life. And that's what's really, I think, one of the most unique things about Gullah culture - is that pure mix of cultures.
One, two, one, two.
RANKY TANKY: (Singing) One-ry, two-ry, dicker-y seven. Halli-boo, crack-iboo, 10, 11. Pee, po, must be done. Twinkle, twangle, 21. One saw, two saw, ziggy-zaw-zoe. Bobtail dominicker, deedle daw doe. Hail 'em, scale 'em, Virgin Mary, ike to my link - tum buck (ph).
GROSS: Oh, great.
ROSS: I don't know if you'd hear it quite that way, like, if kids are singing it. But we kind of made a little harmony with it.
SINGLETON: Yeah, I think probably the best one is actually the "Ranky Tanky" song.
ROSS: Yeah, that's good, right.
SINGLETON: You know, just with the lyrics on that. And actually, there are a few recordings out there of kids doing that, you know, as the game aspect. And the musicality from our side was taking that game and building some music around it in order to present it, you know, as the "Ranky Tanky" song that you hear on the recording, you know.
(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. 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. Old lady come from Booster, had two hens and a rooster. Rooster died, the old lady cried. Now she don't eat eggs like she used to. Oh, Ma, you look so - oh, Pa, you look so - I said, who been here since I've been gone? Two little boys with the blue caps on. Leaning on a hickory stick, Papa gonna slap them good. Slap. Pain in my head, ranky tanky. Pain in my heart, ranky tanky. Pain in my feet, ranky tanky. Pain all over me. Pain in my head, ranky tanky. Pain in my heart, ranky tanky. Pain in my feet, ranky tanky. Pain all over me.
GROSS: That's the title track of the album "Ranky Tanky." Three of the members of the band Ranky Tanky are my guests - Clay Ross, who's a guitarist and singer, Quiana Parler, who's the main singer of the group, and Charlton Singleton, who's the trumpeter and also singer. So tell us about the rhymes in "Ranky Tanky."
SINGLETON: So if you listen to the lyrics of the song where it says, 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. Now, imagine, you know, two - usually, you see two little girls probably playing, like, patty-cake, a little hand game or something like that. Now put those words into it, and there you have the game. And, you know, (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.
So you've got that aspect, definitely. We add in the Gullah rhythm, if you will, and put in a good bass line with it. And there you have "Ranky Tanky."
GROSS: OK. So we're talking about how Gullah music has rhythms that are maybe a little different from what you were used to playing in bands. Though Charlton, this music was always a part of your life. But as the trumpeter, Charlton, is there anything unique to what you're doing on trumpet that is different when you're playing music from the Gullah tradition than when you're playing in a jazz band?
SINGLETON: Not too...
GROSS: Not much, huh? (Laughter) OK.
SINGLETON: ...Different. Not - it's not - it's not that terribly different. I grew up - you know, my first music lesson I can recall - or at least that I think it was my first music lesson - was actually from my grandfather, who is, you know, directly descended from the, you know, Gullah.
You know, he was born in 1892 on Capers Island, one of these small islands, just like, you know, the other islands off of the coast. And when he was - I think Big Daddy was 6 or 8 or something around there where there was a really big hurricane that came and forced all of them to seek higher ground, and that's how they ended up in the small community of Awendaw - or 10 Mile, we call it - which is about 14 miles going north of the city of Charleston.
And he would always sit all of his grandkids and great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids up until he passed away - he made it to 100. But he would sit all of us down, and he would sing to us, and he would clap to us. And I think that's where I get my music from. I had to have been around 2 or something around that.
But he would - he'd put us in front him. And you sit down, and he would stomp on the floor. And he would keep this steady beat going on the floor. And then he would clap this other rhythm. (Clapping). And that's just - that's the Gullah rhythm.
That's the basis for it all. You will hear that in - and when you're listening to Ranky Tanky. If you go to a church in the low country, if you go to a Baptist church or an AME church or any of the historically black denominations church, you're going to hear that beat in the low country. That's just a given. You know, whether it's a slow song or a fast song, whether it's a hymn, whether it's a gospel song, you're going to hear that.
And so he would keep that steady - you know, four on the floor with his foot. And then he would clap, and then he would sing to us. And he would just go (singing) jump, baby, jump. Jump, baby, jump. Jump, baby, jump.
And we'd just sit there and jump, you know, just in any way, shape or form. You know, we were, you know, 2 or 3 or 4 years old. And, you know - and then he'd go, (singing) fall, baby, fall. And then you'd dive on the floor. And everybody gets a laugh, you know, something like that.
But I think, looking back on it, that that was, you know, the thing for me - that rhythm, you know? It's embedded in everybody in the low country. That's the rhythm. That's definitely it.
GROSS: I'll tell you what. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more, and we'll hear some music. If you're just joining us, my guests are three of the members of the band Ranky Tanky, which plays music from the Gullah tradition but in a contemporary setting. My guests are Clay Ross, who's a guitarist and singer, Quiana Parler, who's the main singer with the band, and Charlton Singleton, who is a trumpeter and singer. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RANKY TANKY'S "YOU GOTTA MOVE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are trumpeter Charlton Singleton, guitarist Clay Ross and singer Quiana Parler, three members of the band Ranky Tanky, which plays contemporary versions of music from the Gullah culture of the South Carolina coast and Sea Islands. Their debut album is called "Ranky Tanky." When we left off, we were talking about Gullah rhythms.
Clay, did you have to adapt to that rhythm playing guitar with Ranky Tanky?
ROSS: You know, that's a good question. You know, I think that the - coming back to this project after years of doing other kinds of music was really the only way that it would've worked. And so a lot of the rhythms that I play on the guitar are actually - they're rhythms that I play a lot when I play Brazilian music.
And while there isn't a specific guitar tradition associated with Gullah culture because it's traditionally an a capella music with hand claps and singing, so the instrumental elements of the music are something that we are kind of contributing.
And I think specifically with the guitar, a lot of the rhythmic patterns that I use come from forro music and northeastern Brazilian music. And when you look at, like, the history of those musical cultures and the story of the transatlantic slave trade and African diasporas in the Americas, I mean, it makes sense because it's really from the same source.
GROSS: Maybe you can play some of the Brazilian music...
GROSS: ...Brazilian rhythms that you play and compare that to what you're doing with Ranky Tanky.
ROSS: Yeah. Let me give you an example. So there's, like, a forro rhythm, like, a - (playing guitar, singing in Portuguese).
And this rhythm is the same rhythm that I use a lot in Ranky Tanky. So I got - (singing) Old lady come from Booster. Had two hens and a rooster. Rooster died, old lady cried. Now she don't eat eggs like she used to.
So it's the same.
GROSS: Yeah, I hear that.
ROSS: Yeah. And, you know, and it's different in so many ways because everything that the drummer is playing - like, the way that a Brazilian drummer plays is, like, really on top of the beat. And it's, like, you never drag when you're playing Brazilian music. It's just like (imitating drumbeat). It's this intensity.
And in our music in the Gullah tradition - or I just find - it's not something that we even talk about. But, like, the way Quentin or CL play - Calvin Baxter is the other drummer who's Quentin's nephew who plays incredibly and plays with us. And both of them are just - they are, like, Grillo-level (ph) drummers. I mean, it's a family tradition. It's just deep, deep, deep in their DNA. Their mom plays the drums, you know?
ROSS: And the way that they play, it's like that rhythmic core and that cell of the rhythm is there. But the way that they do it - they'll, like, let the beat breathe in this really organic way. And there'll be, like, these big pauses before a downbeat sometimes and a big breath in between each beat. So it's very - it's the same, but very different.
BIANCULLI: Clay Ross, Quiana Parler and Charlton Singleton from the band Ranky Tanky visiting with Terry Gross in 2017. The band's second album, titled "Good Time," has just been released. After a break, we'll hear more conversation with and music from Ranky Tanky. And film critic Justin Chang will review the new Quentin Tarantino film "Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RANKY TANKY'S "PAY ME MY MONEY DOWN")
RANKY TANKY: (Singing) I thought I heard the captain say, pay me my money down. Tomorrow is our sailing day. Pay me my money down. As soon as the boat was clear of the bar, pay me my money down. The captain knocked me down with a spar. Pay me my money down. Oh, pay me. Pay me. Pay me my money down. Pay me or go to jail. Pay me my money down. Oh, pay me. Pay me. Pay me my money down. Forty nights, nights at sea. Pay me my money down. Captain worked every dollar out of me, pay me my money down. If I (unintelligible) a rich man's son, pay me my money down. I sit on the river and watch it run. Pay me my money down.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of our interview and performance with three members of the band Ranky Tanky. The band plays contemporary versions of music from the Gullah culture, the culture of the slaves and their descendants from the South Carolina coast and Sea Islands. Their new album, just released, is called "Good Time." Their previous introductory album has the same name as the five-person group, "Ranky Tanky." Terry spoke with three of them - lead singer Quiana Parler, guitarist Clay Ross and trumpeter Charlton Singleton.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: So, Quiana, when you were introduced to Gullah music through joining this band, what's an example of a song that you fell in love with that you had not heard before?
PARLER: I guess, well, "O Death." I love "O Death," even though it's a song about death.
PARLER: I mean, I do. Clay...
GROSS: I'll stop you right there because I love your version of "O Death." Would you be willing to sing it for us?
PARLER: Yeah, no problem.
GROSS: And does anybody know the lineage of the song? Like...
ROSS: You know...
GROSS: ...Because I've heard it sung in other traditions, too. I've heard it just as, like...
ROSS: It's such a good question, and...
GROSS: Like, a Southern Appalachian song.
ROSS: You know, and I - well, yeah, like Ralph Stanley's, you know...
ROSS: ...Definitive version, really, from the "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. And I think it's like all of this American music - especially in the South, where it's all a melting pot of culture. It's all, you know, a breeding ground of influences from around the world.
And I think that songs like that just have a timeless quality. And they've survived the test of time. And no one is able to really say it came from this composer at this moment. I think that it speaks to the timelessness of this music and what this music offers as a testament to the human spirit and an example of like the best parts of the human condition - you know, as we deal with our own mortality, which is inevitable amongst us all.
PARLER: You know, one thing that's very - I guess in an African American church, we celebrate death. You know, you're home going. It's a celebration because you're going to meet Jesus. But we also ask, can you spare a soul another day? You know, that's why it's one of my favorite. I love "O Death."
GROSS: Please sing it for us. It's so beautiful, yeah.
RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Oh, Death walked up to the sinner gate, said believed you have waited now a little too late. Your fever is well past 102, a narrow chance that you'll ever pull through. Cried, oh, Death. Oh, Death, the morning. Oh, Death, won't you spare me over till another year? Now, you heard God's people sing and pray. You would not heed, just walked away. You would not even bend a knee. Well, now have got to come and go with me. Cried, oh, Death. Oh, Death, the morning. Oh, Death, won't you spare me over till another year? Cried, oh, Death. Oh, Death, the morning. Oh, Death, won't you spare till another year?
GROSS: Oh, gosh, that sounds so great. That's Quiana Parler singing - Clay Ross on guitar, Charlton Singleton, trumpet. What kind of songs, Quiana, did you sing in church?
PARLER: I sang "Oh, Mary, Don't You Eat." I sang "I Got To Serve The Lord Until I Die." Do you remember that one, Charlton?
SINGLETON: Vaguely, but yeah.
PARLER: And, you know, that rhythm was still in the church for me too, you know.
PARLER: Because we didn't have drums in the church.
PARLER: So this is what we had.
SINGLETON: You clapped.
PARLER: And our feet.
SINGLETON: And you stomped your feet.
PARLER: Yeah, that was it.
SINGLETON: That's it.
GROSS: Well, apparently everybody knew you had a great voice when you were very young because I know when you were 8, you started taking singing lessons with an opera singer. What do you learn when you're 8 and taking singing lessons?
PARLER: You know, I didn't realize how much I learned until this band. You know, she was a Metropolitan Opera singer by the name of June Bonner. And I utilized so much of what she's taught me now. And that's how I survive vocally on the road.
The best part of Ranky Tanky, for me, is being able to use all of my skill set that I've learned vocally in one band, which is kind of, like, unheard of, you know. In bands, you normally get to just sing - if you're going to sing pop, you're going to do that. If you're going to sing R&B, you stick to R&B. In this band, I get to kind of like make it gumbo and make it work and interpret it through song.
GROSS: Charlton, you actually grew up in Gullah culture. Your grandfather is from one of the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast.
GROSS: There's a song on the album called "Watch That Star" that you have a personal connection to through your grandfather. I'm going to ask you to do that song. But before that, I want to hear the story behind the song.
SINGLETON: Well, Big Daddy, as he was affectionately called, when he was a young man, and he was seeking the Lord, he told us - his kids, you know, my father, my aunts and uncles and everybody else, all the grands and great-grands - that this is the song that when he was seeking the Lord that the Lord gave to him. And it has, I guess, the chorus from "Watch That Star" in it. And it's slightly different. Now, Big Daddy's song is affectionately known as "Mary Weep Martha Mourn."
GROSS: Quiana, can you sing the Ranky Tanky version of "Watch That Star" - just a verse or two of that?
RANKY TANKY: (Singing) The day has passed and gone. The evening shades are pinned. All my way, I remember well the night of death is near. Watch that star. See how it runs. Watch that star. See how it runs. If the star run down on the western hills, you ought to watch that star. See how it runs.
GROSS: Aw, that's beautiful. Thank you so much for doing that.
PARLER: Thank you.
GROSS: Your harmony's so great together. Did you automatically know how to harmonize with each other? Or did you have to, like, work it out?
SINGLETON: I think that's a little combination because part of it is, you know, knowing what the melody is and who's singing, you know, the melody in that song. And then we basically just sat around and figured out what part that we were going to do based off of whatever chord was being played and, you know, the vocal range of whoever was singing the harmony. That's the musical terms of it.
In the Gullah culture, though, you know, when somebody raises up a song, or someone sings a song, then everybody else just finds their part. You know, sometimes in musical terms, it might not be the traditional voice leading that you might want to do. But as long as you harmonized and as long as it sounded good, it was fair game.
ROSS: I think that's also a reason why - another way that our expression of Gullah music is a more contemporary one in that we've definitely like shaped the harmonies in the songs that we do. I mean, Charlton has perfect pitch. We went to music school. We, you know, write charts. And, you know, we look at the harmony and analyze in a way what we're singing so that it, you know, does the most it can do, from a lot of different perspectives. And I've definitely had people in the community tell me, oh, when you start doing that to it, it messes it up.
SINGLETON: Yeah, oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, there was some people at home in my community, they were like, that's not how the song goes.
ROSS: Yeah, totally.
SINGLETON: You know, but they're supportive. And they were like, well, I understand, y'all are doing it - y'all youngsters - yeah, you...
ROSS: Yeah (laughter).
SINGLETON: In your contemporary way - yeah, you youngsters, you young kids out there.
GROSS: Well, a - and I imagine a lot of people say, what's a trumpet doing playing Gullah music?
SINGLETON: Exactly. You know, because - you know, like Quiana said, it was just hand claps and you stomping your feet, and that was the music - your voice, your hands and your feet.
GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll be right back and hear more music. If you're just joining us, my guests are three members of the band Ranky Tanky, which plays contemporary versions of Gullah music, music from the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands. My guests are Clay Ross, who's a guitarist and singer, Quiana Parler, who is the group's main singer, and Charlton Singleton, who's a trumpeter and singer. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RANKY TANKY'S "SINK 'EM LOW")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are three members of the band Ranky Tanky. They're a band that plays music from the Gullah culture, the culture of the islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. This is Gullah music but in a really contemporary setting - with trumpet, which is played by my guest, Charlton Singleton, guitar played by my guest Clay Ross. And Quiana Parler is the main singer with the band. She's also with us.
Charlton, since you grew up in South Carolina and your grandfather was from one of the Sea Islands - I think you said that he moved to the mainland because of a hurricane - did hurricanes figure a lot in family lore?
SINGLETON: I think, you know, any sort of storm that would come, you know, where we live - you know, it's always a hurricane. With regards to the Gullah communities, that's just something that, you know, they had to deal with. You know, going to higher ground is what everybody tells you - seek higher ground, move, go to a higher place. You know, you can interpret that a lot of different ways. You know, you want to get higher to get closer to God. You know, that's the safety. Go to safety. Go higher.
PARLER: Yeah, even "Been In The Storm."
SINGLETON: "Been In The Storm" - when - you know, I get chills every time I hear Quiana sing "Been In The Storm," which is on our album. And, you know, it's just - it's a powerful song. But yeah, when my grandfather was, you know, just a little boy - I think maybe that was in 1898. But, you know, they basically got on a little raft, and they floated from Capers Island over to the mainland, which turned out to be where Awendaw, S.C., sort of begins, and...
GROSS: Where you grew up.
SINGLETON: Where - that's where I grew up, yeah, and...
GROSS: So since you mentioned "Been In The Storm," Quiana, would you sing a little bit of it?
PARLER: All right.
(Singing) I've been in the storm so long. You know that I, I've been in the storm so long. I'm crying, oh, Lord. Give me more time to pray. You know I've been in the storm so very long.
GROSS: Thank you. Songs like that that you just sang and songs like "O Death" that you sang for us earlier - those are just, like, emotionally devastating songs.
GROSS: What goes through your mind or your body as you sing songs like that?
PARLER: You know, those are the two songs that really drain me emotionally. And I've been trained to not, you know, use my emotions - what I'm dealing with. And, you know, there's - but I'm human at the same time, you know? I lost one of my really good friends while we were out on the road, and I tried so hard not to cry. And then I did - was it "O Death"?
SINGLETON: Mmm hmm.
PARLER: And I just lost it. Like, it was just - no, that - it was "That's Alright," which is about death as well. And it was suddenly that we lost her, and it was just so hard. It was one time I could not be the performer. It just came through, like, really bad.
ROSS: I think sometimes bringing - these songs, they bring peoples in touch and so close to pain and their suffering that is just the common thread of all humanity. And everybody deals with that in one way or another. And I think these songs allow us to get close to that in a safe space, and to share that together and commune with one another around that. And it's just powerful and beautiful.
GROSS: You know, just to change subjects just a little bit, Charlton, you've been playing in the studio today. You've been using a mute. And the mute that you're using is actually, I think, a plunger, right? Is it...
SINGLETON: It is, yes.
GROSS: Is it a sink plunger or a toilet plunger?
SINGLETON: It is for a sink. For a trumpet and the size of the bell that I have, yes, a sink plunger is the best fit. If you see a trombonist, they would have one that was the size for a toilet.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. I love mutes. Can you do some fancy mute thing for us?
SINGLETON: All right. (Playing muted trumpet).
GROSS: Great. (Laughter). It has been so great to speak with the three of you and to hear you sing and play. I'm really grateful, and I want to thank you so much. And before you go, you have to tell us, what does Ranky Tanky mean?
ROSS: Ranky Tanky means get funky.
SINGLETON: That's what it means. Yeah. That's the loose translation.
ROSS: It means get funky. Yeah. Shake it.
PARLER: She's like, OK.
GROSS: And Ranky Tanky is the name of the band. So Clay Ross, Quiana Parler, Charlton Singleton, thank you all so much. And good luck to you and the band. It's been great to have you here.
PARLER: Thank you.
ROSS: So honored. Thanks so much for having us.
SINGLETON: Thank you so much. This has been truly an honor. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD TIME")
RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Good time, a good time. We gonna have a time. Good time, a good time. We gonna have a time. Good time, a good time. We gonna have a time. Good time, a good time. We gonna have a time. Good time, a good time. We gonna have a time. Good time, a good time. We gonna have a time. And when we all - all get together, we gonna have a time. I got let out - shake it - from Tennessee - shake it. My sweetheart - shake it - writing to me - shake it - oh - shake it - shake it in that tree - shake it. Shake it in the mattress. Shake it. Shake it in the money bank. Shake it. Oh, baby, oh, baby, oh, baby, oh, baby.
BIANCULLI: That's the title track from Ranky Tanky's new CD, "Good Time." Our interview with the band was recorded in 2017 after their debut album, "Ranky Tanky," was released. Coming up after a break, film critic Justin Chang will review the - new Quentin Tarantino film, "Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.