A Ranky Tanky concert provides two outcomes. One being what you’d expect from a concert: You dance, you’re entertained, you leave the venue musically satisfied. The other outcome appeals to music fans who also yearn for some historical knowledge of what they’re hearing.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll learn that the Charleston, South Carolina-based band are descendants of the Gullah, who during times of the slave trade were people captured off Africa’s Rice Coast that post-Civil War settled along the Sea Islands of South Carolina.
Ranky Tanky, a band that moonlights as a course in anthropology, will perform Wednesday at the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College.
Formed three years ago, it took one album for the band to take off; crowds got bigger, venues larger and albums sales increased thanks to recognition on the Billboard jazz charts.
Although not necessarily traditional jazz; it is music where jazz and funk rub elbows with world-beat and rock, where traditional songs of the public domain are given new, uptempo groove and life.
“When you look at the roots of American popular music, and you look at rock ’n’ roll, jazz, country or bluegrass, what you have with all of these musical styles is a mixture, a real melting pot of the influences that immigrants from all over the world brought to this country,” said guitar player Clay Ross. “So, I think that when we’re playing something that sounds like a blues song, or it sounds more like a jazz piece, or a rock song, all of this is tied directly to the influence that Gullah people and Gullah culture has had on American music.”
Ranky Tanky, whose name loosely translates to “Get Funky” or “Work It,” is putting a bit of a spin on the music, offering a high-energy dose of a style of music that hasn’t always been meant to be performed in a high-energy setting. The historical facet of the music remains, but it’s being presented in a manner different from that of its ancestors.
“I think an important point to make a note of is what we’re offering is the first ever secular celebration of a culture that was not always allowed to celebrate itself,” Ross said. “It’s much different than Mardi Gras. These cultures have a secular expression, and what we’re doing is offering the music taken out of a church or religious context. We’re framing a lot of this music at times to juke-joint energy.”
Look beyond the music and you’ll find a will to spread the word of a culture that’s unknown to those outside the Southeast Coast of the United States. Using music as a vehicle to teach, they’re a band delivering a dose of American history with a world-music beat.
“There are many layers to the onion. The mission had been, and continues to be, the sharing of this underrepresented culture with the world, and as we continue to do that, we hope to use the platform we’ve been given to do that justice,” Ross said. “It’s not a lecture, its not intended to bore anyone in any way. Its supposed to feel great and inspire you. If all you get from a Ranky Tanky show is a great feeling and a good time, we’re totally content with that. But I would encourage people to take that inspiration a little further to dig a little deeper into the culture. There’s a lot to be inspired by. As always, wisdom can be found through the timeless pursuit of our ancestors. Times are changing constantly, but there is something that will forever remain the same, and I think those pillars of wisdom are more relevant than ever.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.