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Ranky Tanky will celebrate Gullah music with a modern twist in show at the Sheldon

South Carolina band Ranky Tanky adapts rhythms and songs of the Gullah culture into a modern idiom. The group includes, from left, Kevin Hamilton, Charleton Singleton, Quiana Parler, Clay Ross and Quentin E. Baxter.
Peter Frank Edwards
Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries
South Carolina band Ranky Tanky adapts rhythms and songs of the Gullah culture into a modern idiom. The group includes, from left, Kevin Hamilton, Charleton Singleton, Quiana Parler, Clay Ross and Quentin E. Baxter.

The music of South Carolina-based band Ranky Tanky is informed by hundreds of years of history.

Its sound is rooted in the Gullah culture of the southeastern U.S. — descendants of enslaved people whose African rhythms laid the foundation for devotional music and songs for work and play.

Drummer Quentin E. Baxter learned the rhythms at the heart of Gullah music as he grew up playing percussion in churches around Charleston, South Carolina.

The work of Ranky Tanky is centered around those rhythms. The Grammy Award-winning group plays contemporary arrangements of old Gullah songs and original compositions inspired by the same history.

The group plays the Sheldon Opera House and Art Galleries on Friday in a performance with Dom Flemons, co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group that celebrates and extends the history of southern, Black string bands. Joining Baxter onstage will be Ranky Tanky vocalist Quiana Parler, bassist Kevin Hamilton, guitarist/vocalist Clay Ross and trumpeter/vocalist Charleton Singleton.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Baxter about the roots of Ranky Tanky’s music.

Jeremy D. Goodwin: How did your upbringing in the Black church inform your music?

Quentin Baxter: All of the rhythms I’m playing, essentially, throughout the shows, are rhythms that either I learned from my parents or ones that we’ve adapted based on how someone praised or danced in the church.

So I have rhythms that are steeped in tradition based on how someone stomped on the floor when they were shouting in church. The substratum of Gullah rhythm is also known as the stick rhythm, where you had a mother or a deacon of the church and they had this big stick and they just knocked on the floor. That rhythm is the driving force behind all of it.

All of the arrangements come from actually starting as authentic as we can get and seeing how far we can push it. It still allows other elements to come in. We do have a lot of songs we’ve written as a band, and not just arrangements of the old tunes. But the sentiment of the songs, the message in the songs, resonates with the community. We’re not really trying to get out there like we have a license to do whatever we want. We have a license to continue to respect the culture.

Goodwin: I think a lot of the reason that people who are not of the Guillah culture are exposed to this music is from the extraordinary efforts of Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island singers, who recorded a lot of this material more than 50 years ago.

Baxter: Well, you’re exposed to the word "Gullah" because of that.

You’re exposed to the sentiment and the rhythms because this music, this style of playing, this rhythmic driving force, has been the informant of just about every different style of American music. When you hear jazz, when you hear blues, when you hear Motown, you hear that legacy of this music.

Goodwin: When I listen to your adaptation of “You Better Mind,” you and trumpeter Charleton Singleton are putting a lot of New Orleans into that, right?

Baxter: Well, that’s because you probably heard it as an inflection from New Orleans first, yeah?

Goodwin: Hearing what you’re doing on drums, it sounds like it would have a place in second line music.

Baxter: Absolutely. New Orleans and Charleston are sister cities. But when you listen to zydeco, and you listen to those driving rhythms, you’re listening to the Gullah culture as an informant.

This creole is the purest African assessment of colonial — you know, what it is. So there’s not much French or Spanish influence in our trance.

It all evolves. And I think what’s important and really significant about this presentation with Ranky Tanky and Dom Flemons is that you’re going to get this very stripped down, raw version from Dom Flemons of this very evolution of music that we’re talking about.

It’s so important to know that music still has a direction, but it does come from somewhere.

Goodwin: What’s the animating spirit that connects the traditional work that you adapt and your original pieces?

Baxter: The sentiment is love. The sentiment is respect. Man’s humanity to man. It’s a lot of the values you do learn in church, or whatever moral institution you align yourself with. It’s an offering. It’s a tradition of humility.

This culture is really about love. It’s about giving. And forgiving. Compassion.

There’s a lack of songs that really deal purely with compassion. And fun, and enjoyment. Without becoming a band that’s preaching morals, we’re a band that sings songs that people want to hear because sometimes you just want to hear a good message. Especially now.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.