Ranky Tanky Brings Contemporized Gullah Music to Clemens Fine Arts Center

Feb 4, 2020

Ranky Tanky is a modern blend of traditional Gullah music and the jazz, blues, and rock n' roll that was born from the African diaspora. Clay Ross, guitarist and founder of the Grammy award-winning group, speaks with Tracy Ross about Ranky Tanky's upcoming performance at the Clemens Fine Arts Center in Paducah, Kentucky.

From the Ranky Tanky website:

"Grammy-nominated, Charleston-based quintet [Ranky Tanky] performs timeless music born from the Gullah culture of the southeastern Sea islands. Their debut album was featured on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross and the TODAY show. Playful game songs, ecstatic shouts, and heartbreaking spirituals can all be found on their latest release, Good Time, which also offers the group's first original songs inspired by the Gullah tradition."

Gullah music was born from the conditions of slavery that characterized the lives of the Gullah Geechee people, who are "descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the rice, indigo, and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast. Many came from the rice-growing region of West Africa. The nature of their enslavement on isolated islands and coastal plantations created a unique culture with deep African retentions that are clearly visible in the Gullah Geechee people's distinctive arts, crafts, foodways, music, and language."

Ranky Tanky has drawn from this distinct culture to make a new incarnation of Gullah music with contemporary instrumentation and original compositions. "I think the main thing that makes our music different than the traditional expression of Gullah music is that we use instrumentation," Ross explains. "We have a guitar, a bass, trumpet, drum kit, and a lead vocalist. Traditionally, [Gullah] music was just vocals and percussion - meaning hand claps or stomping on the floor."

Ross says that while the instrumentation adds a fresh take on the long-lasting traditions, "the roots of the music are inherent in our contemporary expression. You can't separate the traditions from this contemporary expression that we are offering. The traditions have informed the sounds that we are making. In some cases, with some of the songs, we're singing them almost exactly how they would have been sung in their original context - we're just adding the instrumentation around the song. I would say it's a departure, but it's not an ungrounded departure. It's very rooted."

"One of my favorite points of feedback we get quite often is that we sound very unique," Ross continues. "People often say, 'you sound like nothing else out there.' To me, that's a real compliment because while e do sound like nothing else out there, we also sound like a lot of other music...Gullah has always been an informant to musical styles that have become popular in America. Whether you're talking about rock n' roll or blues or jazz, there are many styles of American music that have been informed by Gullah people."

Bands like Little Feat and the Rolling Stones have all taken direct cues from the Gullah music tradition, Ross explains. But beyond that, "the rhythmic influence, the polyrhythmic aspect of West African Music that made their way into America via the Transatlantic slave trade...became a unique African diaspora in the Americas, very specifically on the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. This is why Gullah culture and the region is a real heartland of American music."

Four of the five musicians in Ranky Tanky were previously in a jazz quartet that regularly played in Charleston, South Carolina. After attending numerous world music festivals with independent projects, Ross noticed there was no contemporary expression of Gullah culture. "I saw a way for us to share something very special," Ross says. 

Since the formation of the quintet, Ranky Tanky has received several accolades, including a Grammy award for Best Regional Roots Music Album and #1 positions on the Billboard, Amazon, and iTunes jazz charts. 

The prolific group will perform in Paducah at the Clemens Fine Arts Center on Saturday, February 8th, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and information can be found on the Clemens Fine Arts Center website. For more information on Ranky Tanky, visit their website