At a moment when authenticity has become a flashpoint in discussions of cultural identity, the Gullah community of America’s southeastern Lowcountry provides a useful entry point for those wishing to understand the African roots of African-American experience. Coastal Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, and the Sea Islands have for centuries been home to the continent’s most undiluted fount of African cultural retention. Named for the Creole language spoken throughout the region, the Gullah community arose when, for reasons both economic and environmental, white slave owners withdrew from the rice fields along the Atlantic seaboard, leaving thousands of recently enslaved Africans to develop a creole culture in which elements of African life were preserved to a high degree.
On Thursday, April 15, at 5 p.m., UCSB Arts & Lectures will combine the musical excellence of the House Calls series with the high-minded mission of its yearlong Race to Justice project by presenting Ranky Tanky, the Grammy-winning Gullah group from Charleston, South Carolina. Layering infectious, jazz and funk-based rhythms on a foundation of traditional Gullah songs and chants, Ranky Tanky crafts music for dancing that leaves a distinct impression of spiritual renewal in its wake. Good Time, the group’s 2019 album that was named the Best Regional Roots Recording by the 2020 Grammy Awards, bobs and weaves along pathways forged by groups like Chic and the JBs. Trumpeter Charlton Singleton’s musical dialogue with lead singer Quiana Parler is simply delicious — as universally and immediately appealing as a heavenly duet between Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin. The rhythm section of Quentin Baxter and Kevin Hamilton enjoys a syncopated chemistry with guitarist/vocalist Clay Ross that allows them to modulate from deep blues to drumline sizzle in the space of a single track.
As an ambassador not only for the band, but for Gullah culture more generally, Singleton speaks in cascading paragraphs packed with local knowledge and buoyed by a musician’s instinctive feeling for phrasing and tempo. He argues convincingly for Gullah’s centrality, saying, “People know it well; they just don’t know that it’s Gullah.” As examples, he cites such songs as “Kum Bah Yah” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” along with the entire Ranky Tanky repertoire, which does sound familiar at the same time that it feels fresh. The track “Stand by Me” on Good Time is not a cover — it’s an original — yet it stakes as strong a claim to that three word phrase as Ben E. King’s classic does; no mean feat.
For listeners new to Ranky Tanky’s music, perhaps its most noticeable quality is the propulsive swing that animates every song. Fast or slow, these players never neglect to groove. In the official video for the Good Time album’s title track, family and friends gather at a Charleston juke joint for a night of dancing that arrives just in time to save the proprietor from eviction for unpaid rent. Not only does the landlord accept a fistful of wrinkly, sweat-stained cash as payment, he winds up on the dance floor with everyone else. While it may not yet be possible for us to get down in person, there’s no reason why audiences for Thursday’s virtual rent party can’t turn it up and bust a move at home. We could all use some of what these folks have got, and this show will bring it.
For tickets and to tune in, visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.