Interview: Ranky Tanky

Written by | Across The Pond, Artists, Interviews, News

Ranky Tanky is a unique quintet hailing from Charleston, South Carolina. The band’s roots are deeply embedded in the West African inspired Gullah culture shared by many of its members. The group’s debut album released in October of 2017 skyrocketed to number 1 on the Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon Jazz Charts after the quintet was featured on the popular NPR’s (National Public Radio) “Fresh Air” Radio program! We spoke with Clay Ross the group’s guitarist, manager, and founding member while on tour in Lisbon Portugal about his inspirations musically for the first album, songwriting, touring, and future plans for the group!

Hello Clay, nice to meet you via phone! I know you are currently overseas, how long have you and the band been in Europe this time around?

Yes, I’m currently in Lisbon Portugal, and was in Spain last week with Ranky Tanky! I have this other band called Matuto that I was doing the eight years prior to putting together Ranky Tanky, this European tour was something that Matuto had on the books for a long time working with the US state department. So I’m currently in Portugal with Matuto, but I was in Spain last week performing at the Womex conference with Ranky Tanky. We were there trying to get more work going in Europe for Ranky.

(The Womex conference is an industry artist showcase and networking event held yearly featuring various artist from around the world)

DCH – Ok, I got ya! With Ranky Tanky you are the guitarist, manager, and founder, can you tell me the origins of how you formed Ranky Tanky and how the band came up with that obviously interesting name?

CR – The Ranky Tanky name or vibe we kind of define to be like work it, get funky, or shake your body, because it comes from a kids game that’s described in a book called “Step it Down” by Betsy Jones, who was recorded quite a lot by Alan Lomax in the 1960’s. The game is the song “Old lady come from Booster two hens and a Rooster” and then it goes “pain in my head, ranky tanky”

DCH – So basically, it just means good feeling or good vibe?

CR – Yeah, Ranky Tanky is like the cure-all you know! That good feeling!

DCH –  I know you and the band’s music have been heavily influenced by the West African Gullah culture that is present in South Carolina where the band is originally from, can you tell me more about that?

CR – Yes, based on the things I’ve read and the conversations I’ve had, it’s like the Gullah language and even the name comes from a mixture of all of these different Africa languages and people that were caught up in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It’s sort of a slang language that developed from all of these enslaved people from Africa mixing together and attempting to communicate with each other and also the British colonial English being in that mix. So this new language was formed, it’s really like a mix of colonial British and all these different African languages!

DCH – So, it was really a bit like what happened in Louisiana with the Creole language, with the enslaved Africans mixing with the French?

CR – Yes, just without the French influence! It’s really something unique, and we thought it was really something special that we wanted to share with more people in the world! We saw that the Gullah culture was really being under-represented by our generation! As we are all from South Carolina, I’m a disciple of the music but for the other band members who are all descendants of Gullah culture so it’s really a way of life for them and it’s a big part of my life just through my long relationship with them.

DCH – Ranky Tanky released its debut album Oct of 2017 that did really well, it ended up being featured a few months after its October release on NPR’s “Fresh Air” radio show nationally in the United States. Would you consider that the big break for the record?

CR – Yes absolutely, “Fresh Air” has over 5 Million listeners, so that changed everything and that happened really fast! We released the album October 20th, 2017 and then we were on “Fresh Air” in early December and by January we were the number 1 album on the Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon Jazz Charts! So it all happened very quickly!

DCH – I just listened to the entire album and it’s really something special, you feel the cultural components come together that you mention and it has a joyous authentic vibe and energy to it! Really good fun!

Let’s talk about the other band members, I know you have an amazing lineup of very experienced and known musicians including your female vocalist Quiana Parler!

CR – Yes! Charlton our trumpet player has worked with a lot of people’s groups and has focused his career mainly in the Southeast, he’s kind of the face of jazz in Charleston, South Carolina. He was the conductor of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, which is a huge big band and I think they do something like 12 concerts a year in a 3000 seat space. They had a huge promotional campaign with that organization, so he was very involved with them, so he’s been very celebrated especially in the low country! (The Carolinas)

Quentin Baxter our drummer/percussionist works with jazz vocalist Renee Marie, but he’s also recorded with Freddy Cole and toured with him for a long time! Our bassist Kevin Hamilton has been a member of the “One Beat” US State department music tours, he’s also toured with Renee Marie and he toured with my other group Matuto for a few years.

DCH – With all of you being from Charleston, you had to have come across each other in other bands over the years before putting Ranky Tanky together?

CR – Yes, we were really like best friends! We had this group together in Charleston when we were in our 20’s in the late 90’s called “The Gradual Lean” when we were all coming up together playing jazz and trying to get our careers started. The Gradual Lean jazz quartet was really popular in the Charleston area, we played this local club every Tuesday that would be packed with like 300 people every week so it was like an event in Charleston… Charleston is not a big place, so we were really connected through that experience together, so everyone locally there has really associated us together and we were pretty well known there from playing together!

After that time, everyone just sorted needed to go out and do their own thing which was inevitable, now here we are like 15 years later and we were like putting this group of people back together and it feels good. Nobody holds anyone up in some weird way, but we hold each other up in nice ways and we are all just old friends! We build everything on these old experiences, and we have a lot of love and trust for each other.

DCH – It’s great that you have built Ranky Tanky together with a group of people that are all friends, it’s rare to be able to maintain that sometimes in the music business!

CR – True, it’s really rare and I don’t take it for granted! I think it’s really special, and it really helps in running a business together of this scale too! We are definitely no longer talking about the level we were doing back at home, playing at a club once a week! We are a full time touring band, and there’s lots of money coming through the organization now so it’s all transparent. It’s a lot to deal with!

DCH – Let’s talk about your female vocalist Quiana Parler, I know she was at one point on American Idol and she’s also toured with some huge names in the pop world!

CR – Yeah she’,s phenomenal! She definitely has the reputation of being our greatest singer in Charleston (South Carolina). She placed in the second season of American Idol, that led her to be connected to Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard also former Idol vocalist of course. So Quiana and Clay are really close, she toured with Clay for a long time and that led to her having opportunities to tour with all kinds of well-known artists including Miranda Lambert, Maroon Five, and others so she’s very experienced at that level.

DCH – Was she singing background with them I’m assuming?

CR – Yes as a background vocalist for those artists! So Quiana has had a lot of experience touring with really successful artists, so her experiences really help us shape our expectations and she challenges me a lot to try to see things in a little bigger way.

I’m a little more scrappy, and use to making the wheels go around any way I can so now we have this opportunity to step up our game and make things better! We also really value the in-house model, sort of taking responsibility for ourselves as much as possible and taking care of what we can on our own. We are slowly and steadily learning where to say yes and where to say no, and just seeing how we want to define our next two, five, and ten years as a group!

DCH – One the first Ranky Tanky record I read in the notes that many of your ideas and inspirations came from some unique sources, can you tell us more about that?

CR – Yeah, so all of that music was sourced from field recordings, they are all public domain. They were these little pieces of field recordings that existed initially as acapella pieces, literally like a recording of kids playing a game clapping hands and chanting one of those songs. I really tried to find everything I could get my hands on, the initial idea is just sort of to find inspiration! I wanted to rework that project, and it was kind of a simple idea to put together with these friends of mine thinking that maybe we would do ten or fifteen shows a year at venues like performing arts centers, but then it just turned into much more than that.

So, on that first album of the work initially was taking a field recording like “The Old Lady Come From Booster” is actually a separate song from “Who Is The Greatest” so the “Who Is The Greatest” piece is just like a separate thing.

DCH – So, many of the songs on the first album were like separate small pieces of different field recordings and you put them together in a collage of sorts to make a song?

CR – Yeah exactly, some of those songs are like arrangements of different elements put together. You kind of have to think about how you’re going to piece these pieces together so they are a cohesive piece of music then you wrap harmony around it because none of those pieces/field recordings really has that element in it.. Also, in those field recordings there’s literally no harmonic instruments present, so we were trying to be careful to not over think it and make the music like this super jazzy heady thing you know!

DCH – The first record really falls into a great place because yeah it’s jazz, but it’s also soulful and funky! It’s just really interesting where you guys took it!

CR – Well, probably the jazziest I got was that song on the album “Go To Sleep Little Baby” it’s like a little bit more harmonically dense of an arrangement, but otherwise, we just tried to keep it fun not to overly complicate things and just give it space. The record is really all about the personalities of the band and the band members and what they bring to the music!

DCH – So how about the future for Ranky Tanky recording wise, any plans to get back into the studio soon?

CR – We actually are going to go into the studio this month to put some stuff in the can, we currently have eleven new works that will presumably be the new record but you know sometimes you get in there and it takes longer then you want so we’ll see.

DCH – What are your upcoming tour plans for the group?

CR – Well, we are trying to do as many as 100 dates this season! We are really in a building phase currently, trying to seize on the momentum that’s been happening with us! We have really been having a lot of luck working with venues such as cultural arts centers, and we really want to turn that into building a bigger fan base! We like playing those kinds of places, but we also want to work on getting more into festivals as a big part of the current strategy along with additional European touring!

We just did the Womex thing in Spain, and all of our booking agents there that book us were really thrilled, and they felt highly optimistic you know so we are targeting next July in Europe along with October 2019 for Europe. We are hoping to have a new record to offer in the fall or late spring through our label RESILIENCE MUSIC ALLIANCE so we will see how that plays out.

DCH – I’m sure your fans will be looking forward to the new album, is there any thoughts that you would like to leave us with?

CR – Well, I would like to really encourage people to really get out there and hop online to some research to learn more about Gullah culture, because it’s really a fascinating part of the fabric of American music and an important aspect of who we all are as Americans! I think a huge part of the core of the African American musical experience starts with Gullah, so people really need to check it out.

DCH – Clay, I really want to thank you for sharing your time and music with us! I’m certainly looking forward to hearing more recordings from you and the band in the future and hopefully catching a live show!

CR –Thanks, Darrell my pleasure!

Ranky Tanky band members
Quentin Baxter / Drums and Percussion
Kevin Hamilton / Bass
Quiana Parler / Vocalist
Clay Ross / Guitar and Vocals
Charlton Singleton / Trumpet and Vocals

Artists Website: Ranky Tanky

Interviewer – DCH:  Darrell Craig Harris 

Photo Credits: Jay Gilbert, Peter Frank Edwards & Rafael Barker.

Last modified: April 25, 2020