Ranky Tanky On Celebrating South Carolina's Gullah Traditions

Mar 1, 2020
Originally published on March 1, 2020 11:53 pm

Quentin Baxter and Clay Ross first met as students at the College of Charleston in the 1990s, where they played together in a jazz band. Decades later, they reunited and last month won a Grammy together as members of Ranky Tanky, a band that specializes in blending contemporary American gospel and R&B with Gullah traditional music.

As Ross explains, after spending the early 2000s playing in groups that toured through folk and world music festivals, he noticed that the traditions of his home state were glaringly absent from that scene.

"I just saw that no one was representing South Carolina music, and we have something really special to offer," he says. "And I just thought it was an important thing to champion, and I knew exactly who would be the best suited to do it."


So Ross reached out to Baxter, who was raised around the Gullah tradition; in 2016, they formed Ranky Tanky alongside Kevin Hamilton, Quiana Parler and Charlton Singleton. Now, after the critical and commercial success of Ranky Tanky's second album, Good Time, the group is poised to appear on some prestigious stages this spring, including a show with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra next month and a set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April.

NPR's Michel Martin spoke to Quentin Baxter and Clay Ross about bringing together their diverse musical backgrounds, the impact of their music and celebrating their South Carolina roots. Listen to their conversation in the player above.

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And finally today, we couldn't come here to South Carolina without bringing you a little music. And for that, we go to the band Ranky Tanky. Their signature sound is a blend of Gullah traditional music - that's music that originated with the descendants of formerly enslaved Africans who made their home in South Carolina's low country - and contemporary American gospel and R&B.


RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Pay me or go to jail. 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 be a rich man's son...

MARTIN: Ranky Tanky's "Good Time" won a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Album, and the band is preparing for several upcoming performances on prestigious stages, including with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra next month and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April. And I'm joined now by two of the members of Ranky Tanky, Clay Ross and Quentin Baxter. And we reached them in Charleston, S.C.

Welcome. Congratulations on everything.

QUENTIN BAXTER: Wow. Thank you so much.

CLAY ROSS: Thank you so much.

BAXTER: It's great to be here.

ROSS: Yeah. Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So let's start at the beginning. You met at the College of Charleston, where you were both studying music. And I understand that you formed a jazz quartet with two other future members of Ranky Tanky. But that was in the '90s. And do I have this right - that, Clay, it was your idea to get the band back together?

ROSS: Yeah, that's correct. We have known each other for over 20 years. And actually, looking - I'm across from Quentin right now, and I remember very clearly the first time I ever met Quentin was in an elevator at the College of Charleston. And I said, man, those are some sharp shoes.

BAXTER: (Laughter).

ROSS: He said, yeah. I got these in Italy, man.


MARTIN: OK, which naturally led to Gullah music, of course, right?

BAXTER: At some point, yeah.

ROSS: I just knew that he was somebody you were going to take seriously and that I hoped to play with someday. But yeah, we've known each other for a really long time and have had a lot of great musical experiences together. And, yeah, I came to the band about four years ago with the idea to try to celebrate the regional roots music of our home state and specifically the Gullah culture of their descent. And...

MARTIN: What made you think of that, though? I mean, that's not, as I understand it, that's not your particular tradition, but what made you think of it?

ROSS: Well, I have been really fortunate to be taken under the wing of a lot of great artists in my time since I left South Carolina. I moved to New York in 2002. And I performed for many years with with a Brazilian percussionist, with a Canadian fiddler. And a lot of that time was spent involved in regional roots music styles from different parts of the world. And I had the opportunity to go to a lot of world music festivals and conferences. And I just saw that no one was representing South Carolina music, and we have something really special to offer.

MARTIN: And, Quentin, what about you? What did you like about the idea?

BAXTER: We had to agree with Clay that there was not a secular celebration of this culture. And Clay had a great idea to actually come together and authentically try to champion the representation of this music, and so we stepped into it.

MARTIN: All right. Let's hear a little bit. This is the title track from the album "Good Time."


RANKY TANKY: (Singing) I got a letter - shake it - from Tennessee - shake it - my sweetheart - shake it - writing to me - shake it. Oh, (unintelligible) - shake it - shaking in that tree - shake it - shaking in the mattress - shake it - shaking in the money bank - shake it. Oh, baby, oh, baby, oh, baby, oh, baby.

MARTIN: So, Quention, you you been a professor of jazz percussion. And, Clay, as you mentioned earlier, you've got a diverse background playing different kinds of world music. And so how do you decide what the sound - what this should sound like as opposed to - you know what I mean? Because a lot of times when people are playing, you know, roots music, they kind of go into the archives or they go into kind of oral histories or they find the work as it originally was and, you know, perform it that way. But you're doing something kind of different here. How did you work that through?

BAXTER: This is Quentin speaking. It comes from my background in church or Charlton's background in church because we both grew up playing music in church. I grew up in a Holiness church. Charlton grew up in AME Church, Methodist church. And so throughout all of these churches, because we all fellowshipped with one another, there were certain hand claps or certain tempi that were associated with, you know, celebratory elements in church, whether it's an usher board anniversary, senior choir anniversary, the youth choir. As a matter of fact, the intro to "Good Times" sounds exactly like my church that I grew up in.

MARTIN: I understand that the classical or traditional Gullah music uses mainly a cappella voices and body percussion.

BAXTER: There was always stick rhythms and drums when I grew up. As far back as I've been taught, there were churches who didn't have drums in them. Some Baptist churches might not have had drums, but Holiness churches did. And as long as those two churches actually coexisted, you had - you have that experience.

MARTIN: So let me just play another song that's - would be maybe a little bit more in line with what people might think traditional Gullah music sounds like, and that's "Shoo Lie Loo."


RANKY TANKY: (Singing) With a handful of biscuits - shoo lie loo - meet Clay Ross - shoo lie loo - fly away over yonder - shoo lie loo - just in the kitchen - shoo lie loo - with a handful of biscuits - meet Quentin Baxter - shoo lie loo - fly away over yonder - shoo lie loo - I'm just in the kitchen - shoo lie loo - with a (unintelligible) of biscuits - shoo lie loo - I'm Charlton Singleton - shoo lie loo - fly away over yonder - shoo lie loo.

MARTIN: In the acceptance speech for your Grammy, one of your members, Charlton Singleton, whom you mentioned a number of times, he said that it was an honor to stand on the shoulders of Gullah ancestors and bring this music to the world. When you're out touring or performing, do you think that people experience that the same way you do, to sort of - that they feel in a way that they're connecting to the ancestors through this music?

BAXTER: At times, I do. Most times people come up and they say they just feel so much better having come to the concert than not having been to the concert.

MARTIN: They feel better. That's interesting. What do you think they're saying?

BAXTER: A lot of people are saying that this music is - has inspired them. We've had some people tell us that they've - they had thoughts of doing certain things that weren't so great instead of coming to this concert or that was what they had planned after, and they've changed their minds. We've had some people say this music is like - what'd she say? - honey to the soul. You know, and we really believe what people are saying because a lot of times you can see the emotion in their face, you can see the draw - the tears that are just like right there, especially after Quiana singing a few songs. We have to take a minute because it needs that minute for people to really be cool with what just happened, and then we can move on to the next song. So it really is an uplifting experience.

MARTIN: Clay, when you - when he had the idea of getting the band back together and taking it in this direction, is this what you envisioned? Did you - is this what you expected?

ROSS: Yeah. I just - I mean, I sort of wanted to add to what Quentin was saying that, you know, I am, you know, I'm the disciple of the music and not the descendant of the culture in this band. And, you know, I did come with the idea to do the group, but, you know, this music, it truly inspires me. And I feel lifted up every time we play the music. And I feel that we're able to lift our audiences up every time that we play.

MARTIN: Well, thank you both so much for sharing this with us and spending this time with us. Congratulations again on the Grammy.

BAXTER: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: That's kind of icing on the cake, isn't it?

ROSS: It's crazy.


BAXTER: We'll take it. We'll take it.

MARTIN: Yeah, you'll take it. That's Clay Ross and Quentin Baxter, two members of the band Randy Tanky. We reached them in Charleston, S.C. Thank you both so much for talking to us.

BAXTER: Thank you. Bless you.

ROSS: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.