Ranky Tanky Transcript
Charlton: When I'm out on the stage I feel very calm. I feel like I'm supposed to be there. And so I think that this is the path that I'm supposed to be on and everything that I did prior to that helped me to get to this path.
Helga: Ranky Tanky is a band that performs Black Gullah Sea Island music. And they are very, very connected to that culture. But unlike other forms of music like Afrobeat, the Gullah Sea Island music hasn't made its way into mainstream culture.
I was very curious to understand how the addition of contemporary instruments like bass and drums, which are absent from the way that that music is traditionally performed, would add to or diminish the original purpose of the music. Which is to gather slaves and to name their condition. Name their hope. Name the justice that they long to see come to fruition.
Complicating the story was the fact that the band was at the time nominated for a Grammy. And so, either way there was to be a kind of celebration for their enterprise.
Here's my conversation with Clay Ross and Charlton Singleton with the new Grammy award winning band Ranky Tanky.
You know, one of the things that I'm finding very relevant is the question of path. What's the evidence along the way that helps you know that you are where you're supposed to be?
Charlton: I personally believe in the whole thing about, everything happening for a reason.
When I graduated from high school, I had formulated in my brain and, focused everything on going to college and getting a music education degree and becoming a high school or college band director. And getting my master's degree and my PHD and all of that.
When I was in college, I got introduced to performing. It was sort of thrown upon me by my professors. And I think that they probably would tell you that they saw something, you know, in me on that performance side.
But I still had this passion for teaching. I finished school and I ended up becoming, a performer in a band right after college. And, we did it for a while and we chased the dream, you know. It's sort of grassroots style. This was in the mid to late nineties, and it didn't work. And then I actually got into teaching. And that was great, but there was a part of me that was sort of intrigued by the performance.
And one day, I was driving home and I heard someone talking on the radio. And they basically said, that, you know, everybody that you see selling you something on television or you hear on the radio, they have made up their mind that they're going to make it happen no matter what. And it's very inspirational.
And I literally sat at the stop sign and I listened to this person speaking. And then I basically pulled the car over and I wrote my resignation letter in my head. And I decided to concentrate on performing.
There were a lot of other events in this path that that started to come towards me. And I would see some of these things and I would go back and I would reflect on them. And I would say, "You know what? I think I am supposed to be doing this. I think I'm supposed to be an entertainer. "
I don't think that I'm the greatest singer. I don't think that I'm the greatest trumpet player. But, when I'm out on the stage, I feel very calm. I feel like I'm supposed to be there. I like interacting with the audience. And the feedback that I've gotten has been pretty good. And so, I think that this is the path that I'm supposed to be on. And, everything that I did prior to that helped me to get to this path.
Helga: It's not lost on me that you were in front of a stop sign when you had this revelation.
Charlton: You know, and I didn't even think about it like that. But literally I was around the block from my house and there was one stop sign on this street. You know, I literally sat there for about 15 minutes, just sort of processing all of this because this is a huge, you know, thing.
I was about to go and, you know, tell my wife, "I'm about to quit, you know, teaching. I'm about to put this, this secure job, you know, with benefits and, you know, all this longterm planning and everything, and I'm going to go solo."
Clay: Don't you think it seems like you can really boil these choices down in every moment to, "Is, is it a choice of faith or is it a choice of fear?"
And sometimes it's really becomes that simple to me. It's like in this moment I'm making a choice to do something because I'm afraid of not having a secure job, for example. Or I'm afraid of, you know, not pleasing my parents.
As opposed to, "You know what? I feel totally inspired to go in this direction as far flung and as wild as it may seem. And this is the leap of faith that I want to take today.
Charlton: And that's exactly, you know, what, it felt like and it actually became. Because, while I think everyone in my family, you know, loves me and they've got my back, you know, I'm know that the first question in their brain was, are you crazy? You know?
Helga: Clay, what about you? What were the signs also for you?
Clay: I think it was very much an act of will. And I don't come from a musical family at all. My parents are also educators. My parents met as high school teachers.
There was a lot of love and support in my family, but my mom, neither my mom nor dad can carry a tune. I love you both. But when I discovered music, it just clicked for me. That was very early in my life.
You know, I first played a guitar, found a guitar when I was 10 years old. And I was just attracted to it. I just, for some reason, I wanted to do it. And I could do it right away. It was, it was really a trip, you know?
People knew me as, you know, the kid in the neighborhood who could play. And it was definitely a huge mystery in my family circles as to how on earth a person makes a living as a musician. Because it was either you're the local wedding singer or your Bruce Springsteen. And there's no in between.
It doesn't exist. Because we don't know anybody that does it. I think it really boils down to a feeling. And that is how it has been for me. I think the more time you can spend each day transcending time and feeling in your element and in your zone, and get closer every single day to who you are as a individual unique entity among all entities in the universe. That's a wonderful pursuit.
Helga: Do you think everyone has the privilege of being able to take that perspective though? I'm wondering if you see or feel that there is privilege in being able to spend that kind of time and get to know yourself in that way and get to make friends with the mystery of life?
Charlton: I would see it as a privilege. I would see it as a blessing.
Helga: And I think I'm asking you also, what about the person who may not be clear? Who has another set of circumstances that may be keeping them from having the privilege of doing what they love or pursuing, or just even imagining their circumstances differently than they may exist at a present moment?
Clay: You know that question brings to mind something that our drummer, Quentin, always kind of brings to me. Which is, you know, comparing blues.
Everybody's gotten the blues. Blues is an inherent state of life. Everyone has struggles. No one can see all those struggles. And so I think it's very difficult, if possible at all, to sort of compare people's blues.
I think everyone should hold hope. Don't despair. Please don't despair.
Helga: What were the stakes for you? What was involved in this decision to become musicians?
Charlton: For me, I started playing the piano at a very early age. And it was just basically to mimic what my big sister and my big brother were doing.
Helga: Right. So, you were doing what you saw.
Charlton: I was doing when I saw. My sister was 13 at the time, my brother was 10 and I was three. Once a week, for an hour, there was a man that came to my house and took my big brother and my sister away from me and I didn't have anybody to play with.
And I ran in and out of that room and I did just about everything that I could do except touch the piano to be near them until my father said, "That's it."
And so he made a deal with me. He said, "You can sit in the room. Just, you can't, you know, bother them." And being a three year old, I took that deal because I just knew I needed to be near my big sister and my big brother.
But also, when you're three, you're very impressionable. And you copy everything that people do. And so, I copied everything that I saw.
Helga: And for you Clay? What were the stakes of your becoming a musician and choosing this path?
Clay: Yeah. I think, you know, like Charlton, I come from a really very supportive and loving family. Definitely, I do not take for granted the security provided just by love.
I do not to have for granted at all. And I think that I had the opportunity to choose. And knowing that had I failed, had I not ended up in this position today with wonderful, bandmates and Grammy Award nominated album as Ranky Tanky, they would love me anyway.
Helga: Which is a huge thing. It's huge.
Clay: It's the most meaningful thing.
Helga: So you are the one non-African American member.
Clay: Yes, ma'am.
Helga: Of Ranky Tanky. And I think I've heard you say that you are not a descendant, but you are a disciple.
Clay: Yes, ma'am.
Helga: Of this Gullah culture. The Sea Island music. Tell me what your path was to this music in particular?
Clay: I think a very long story short would be that this music reflects the values and it reflects the most meaningful musical relationships in my life through these individuals. Specifically speaking about, Charlton, Kevin, Quiana, and Quentin, my bandmates and Ranky Tanky.
This project to me was all about them. And it was all about my good fortune of having met them at a very formative time in my musical life. And how the sounds that they exposed me to shaped me not only as a musician, but as a person. And I feel that now 20 years later to sort of circle back with this proposal to my friends, that we try to champion a culture that is their descendants is a way to pay tribute to all of the lessons that I've learned through their presence and patience and kindness in my life.
Helga: Can you say a little bit about what you feel the lessons of the music are for you in particular?
Clay: I mean, to get technical on the musical side, this music has everything. Starting with the rhythm. There's a really wonderful interview with, Duke Ellington that was taken probably in the mid 1960s you where he's talking about the future of music. And Duke Ellington says, "The future of music is the exploration of African polyrhythms and the intertwine of rhythm.
That is inherent in Gullah rhythm in Gullah music. And it's not something that is over-thought. It's something that just is. And it's something that was exhibited when I would walk into a coffee shop in 1996 and see Charlton playing duet with our drummer, Quentin.
And they would play jazz standards, but then immediately play "Wade in the Water" or play another tune that they both knew from different churches that they may have played in growing up is Gullah descendants. And that language that they were speaking, it spoke to me in my heart.
And, I'm not a descendant of this culture. I'm a white man engaging with this music that speaks to me. I don't know why it speaks to me-
Helga: But it does.
Clay: But it does. And that feeling is where I like to live. And when we make music together, I feel that feeling.
Helga: Charlton, what about you? How did you end up in this music and telling these stories?
Charlton: Well, technically it started from when I could just understand what was happening at church. And even before that, my grandfather, my father's father, who was, you know, one of the, the leaders in the community, he visited everyone. He walked everywhere in the community. He was the eldest statesman and he lived to be a hundred.
But anyway, so "Big Daddy" actually, that's this nickname. Big daddy would sit us down and he would sing to us. And while he would sing, he would stomp on, on his floor and he would clap his hands. And it was that Gullah rhythm.
He was born on one of these Sea Islands called Capers Island. And a few of his siblings and his mother, they were forced to come to higher ground. And so I've always known of this rhythm as long as I can- as far back as I can think.
And when Clay, you know, came to us and said, you know, we want to get together and do this band. We're gonna play some Gullah." You know, and I was just like, "Umm"
Helga: And not an odd proposal to you?
Charlton: Well, yes and no. Yes, because I didn't really understand his full vision of it. And, you know, I just figured that everybody knew really about Gullah. But there was something that Clay told me or told us. He basically said, you know, I've been very fortunate in all of my musical experiences to travel around the world with all of these other people and my own groups. And we've gone to all of these fantastic places and played in all of these festivals all over the world. And I notice, I see all of these groups that are out there and they are playing the music from their region, or they're playing the music from this state or something like that.
Helga: And no one was representing.
Charlton: And he said, Why not us?" And so that's when we all kind of leaned forward and I was like, "Hmm."
Helga: But that's also, I think, a very interesting observation and point to make.
Charlton: Oh yeah, definitely.
Helga: Why not me? Why not us?
Clay: That's nice. That's nice. Yeah, that's very true.
Charlton: That is. And presenting the music in a respectful way that paid homage to the descendants. But then also gave this sort of new breath of fresh air with the contemporary sort of style that we put on it was something that was really unique and very enticing for all of us, I think.
Helga: And as you're saying, this music didn't have bass, guitar, right?
Helga: It was voice, stomping. Maybe a stick, right?
Charlton: Yeah. he's got it right there. Yeah.
Helga: And then you have these stories on top. And what I'm curious about too- so I giggle. I grew up in a Pentecostal church and when I asked my mom about going to church, she always says, "I miss the old time hymns." And I said, "But mom, they're still singing the hymns." And she said, "No man. They mash them up." And her experience is in this very, very pure form.
She belongs to a church that was founded because when the Caribbean people came from their islands, they came and they wanted to go to Calvary Baptist church on 57th street.
And they were told at the door that they could enter God's house, but they had to come in through the back door. And they said, "No man. Not, not we." And so they went uptown and they founded this church in Harlem. And that's what I come from, right?
And they had a pianist and a congregation. And we know that congregational singing is very different than being in a band because it's every voice and every kind of voice. And the voice that can carry the tunes, and the voice- voices that are far away from the tunes.
I happen to love the voices that sing that one note through, and it doesn't matter what hymn you're singing. It's one note, and it comes through, and it rings, and it tells the story in a very direct and different way.
And so I'm wondering if there was any concern on your part that in adding all of these other- this other kind of instrumentation, experiences to the music, that it was becoming something else. That it was moving away from it's medicine, in order to make entertainment.
Charlton: Aside from the instrumentation, the integrity is still there. Definitely. And we have been encouraged and we have been applauded and we have been loved by everyone in the community. The funnier things have been when the older folks and the elders and everything, they critique some of us.
You know, like my mom. There's a song on our first recording and my mother heard it and she said, "Oh yeah, I love that song. I know how we sing it at church. Y'all do it wrong though."
Helga: Right? What song is it?
Charlton: It's called, "You better mind." And I think what threw my mother off was the addition of the instruments. And maybe just the swapping of the verse could have been something, you know from them. Because every church, every neighborhood, every village has their own way of singing
Helga: And different turns in the vocal lines.
Charlton: And it could be slight, but that's very meaningful to that particular congregation. And so, my mom was used to hearing it one way because that's the way that she grew up hearing it. There was a man or there is a man in the male choir, you know, and they sang it and you know, a different way. And he sought me out and he said, "I think we're going to change it to your way to give it a fresh coat."
Yeah. And I was like, "Whoa, Whoa. Wait a minute. Cause that could be- that's dangerous. Very dangerous.
Charlton: Yeah. But at the same time we've gotten a whole lot of love and encouragement. And there are groups that are presenting the music still in its purest as a form as they possibly can and it's passed down from generation to generation. Like The Moving Hall Singers. They're a family that goes all the way back to some of the most historic of these songs. But they have all embraced us.
Helga: Why do you think that is?
Charlton: Because we are going out into the world and we're talking more about Gullah. The fact that we are making strides with it, you know, all over the United States. And when we go out over overseas and we having them sing "Shoo Lie Lou" back at us, you know, when we're not on the stage. You know, and everyone in the community seeing all of this stuff that has been so positive about the community. They've just said, "Yes. Go. Do your thing."
Clay: I mean, I would really hope that it's because they can sense and they hear simply the integrity is intact. That we haven't strayed from the integral messages behind the music. The purpose of the music. The soul of the music. And the intention.
And I feel like even if we're playing it in a secular context, that we're still reaching people at a very spiritual level.
Charlton: Oh yeah. Definitely. And there's some of the songs on that we perform in concert, and it's definitely a spiritual experience that is happening.
Helga: What's one of those songs?
Charlton: When Quiana sings "Oh, Death" or when Quiana sings, "Been in The Storm" especially. There's sometimes where I have to, you know, literally walk off stage for a second and collect myself because it's emotional. Because, you know, I can recall my aunts and my uncles singing some of those songs for a number of different reasons. It's very deep. You know, it's very spiritual, you know, so.
Clay: And it's her powerful voice.
Charlton: Oh yeah.
Clay: Summoning something that's timeless. Something that's inside of all of us. No matter where we're from or what color we are. Something that, back to what we said earlier about blues. And everyone has the blues. And this music, it speaks to that.
Helga: Do you think there's something that is particularly important about this music now?
Clay: Well, I think we're certainly living in a very troubled time. And I think we all could use more healing and more faith. We're not saying you need any religion or another. But-
Helga: Faith in?
Clay: Faith in a positive future. Faith and hope for humanity. Faith in other people. There's a lot of fear being propagated right now. And I, I hope that the music that we make is fighting for the other side. It feels that way.
Helga: What question do you think it answers?
Clay: Why are we here? What's the point? You know. The biggest questions. The biggest questions about life. Should I carry on? And the answer is yes. It's always yes.
Helga: What about for you, Charlton?
Charlton: Piggy-backing off of what Clay said, you know. What is our purpose? Like I said before, I think my purpose, you know, is to entertain folks. At the same time the teacher in me doesn't let me go through a concert without explaining something about Gullah. And how, you know, we've, been very fortunate to pick the right songs and write together and compose together the right songs for this particular time,I think in what, , you know, we feel like the world could use.
We have a song called "Freedom". It's a second song on the new recording. And-
Helga: What are the lyrics?
Charlton: Well, I mean, the chorus is, " Freedom. We want freedom." And Quiana basically just said that in a sound check. And I don't even know what she was doing. She might've been looking at a phone or something, but it morphed into something else.
And the song talks about, you know, so many different things that are going on. Whether i it's a gentrification, it's education, it's livelihoods. But there is something in that song that everyone, no matter who you are, I challenge you to not find something in that song that's relating to you in your moment, in your life at that particular time.
And I just think that having these songs, it's just so meaningful right now. That's our path right now.
Helga: When I think about that lyric, right? We want freedom. There's a part of me that feels that that's still a thing that's out there. That it's not here. It's not in front of me. It's not present. It's not what I can have now.
It's like "We Shall Overcome". And I completely understand and appreciate and know in my body the importance and relevance of that song. But I feel that when we sing it now, we let everybody off the hook, and say, "someday". We keep saying someday. Right?
And so when I'm listening to that lyric, "We want freedom", where's the place in the music? In the stories, in this particular kind of music, that has a foot in the past that you are bringing into the present? Where's the part of it that says we have, we own, and therefore we celebrate and we rejoice?
Clay: I think that's a really good question. I think the song, our song, for example- and there are many, you know, being written all the time today. But our song, you know, it says it's sort of, I think a motivational song. It's a song about empowerment. It's a song about standing in in the nowness of freedom. That the freedom is within you.
And that oppression is maybe a state of a state of mind. Certainly, it exists in the world and certainly it is real, but that one must summon the possibility and the experience of that freedom from within.
And the lyrics says, you know, "They take our homes. They take our schools. They say our only choice is to play their fools. They take our land. They take our rights. They'll never know our power. We'll keep up the fight. We want freedom."
You know? I think it's the idea that we are resilient. We are persistent. You can try to stop us. You can try to put-
Helga: You can do all these things.
Clay: And in a sense, I mean, I'm talking big picture. I mean, the colonial conquests themselves can intend to destroy all culture as it existed previously. But it cannot. It is not possible. They've tried. They tried to eliminate the African beliefs of enslaved people. They could not do that. These flowers found a way to bloom. And I think that speaks to an inherent power that lies within every individual.
Helga: So you're calling on the power of the
That's what that song means to me. And it's something that I think every human being can relate to. Because certainly we have our complex history in America. These States of oppression and groups playing power games with one another and oppressing one another exist all over the world still to this day.
And I think that as we want to see progress with that, we need to be motivated from within and to feel that it's even possible. I like what you said because you said it. It's not, "It shall be possible someday." It's possible right now.
Helga: Right now.
Charlton: We're all different. But everybody has, some sort of freedom that they are, you know, looking to get to. And, and I agree with Clay about what you, you said about, you know, about "the now" that's, that's pretty powerful.
That's, that's the truth.
Helga: Is there a thing that you do every day that's part of your practice that you feel helps you that every person can do? Just a tool that you use to get you up and out and motivated and on the road and about the business of making this music?
Clay: For me, I have a little mantra, you know, that life is challenging. It doesn't matter. You can be on your path. And I am definitely living my best life. I'm in my element. I'm so grateful every day. I get to wake up. I get to make music. I get to be with my brothers and my sister. And do you know exactly what I dream to do.
And sometimes it's hard. Sometimes life's tough, man. It doesn't matter how great it can seem on the outside. And you know, something that's carried me through is just this idea that I am far more than I appear to be. And all the strength and power the universe lies within me.
Everything that anyone has ever overcome and has had the power to overcome, I have that power within me. And so do you. And no matter how you may appear, you are always far more than you appear. So I always use that. I fall on that a lot.
Charlton: Growing up in the house where my father was the pastor of an AME church, you know, so, growing up in the, in the church, I always was taught and came to believe, you know, in the power of, of the Lord and how the Lord will put me in, or I will find myself in any position, but the Lord is always there with me.
And so I just feel blessed. So when I wake up in the morning, sometimes I just, most of the time I just sort of sit there and after just saying, you know, "Thank you, Lord" for their ability to just say, thank you, Lord. I feel blessed to get up and just do anything.
And the majority of the time it's gonna be something that I'm putting in my day that is going to help somebody do something or help put somebody in another position to do something positive, of course.
And so I always lean on the Lord. And a lot of other, you know, various scriptures at times. It just depends on whatever, you know. It could be, I mean, everybody goes to, you know, things like the 23rd Psalm, which was, "He was wounded for our transgressions." you know.
I just lean on a lot of scripture in order to, you know, keep me going on that path. That and some songs that they would sing back in the day too.
Helga: What's one song?
Charlton: Keep me in the pathway, Lord. Keep me in the pathway, Lord. I don't wanna stumble. I don’t wanna fall. Keep me in a pathway, Lord.
Helga: Amen. I am so happy that our paths have crossed here and met here today.
Helga: And I very, very much appreciate you being here.
Helga: Real talk.
Clay: Yes, ma'am. Amen. That's it. All right.
Helga: Clay Ross and Charlton Singleton, members of the new Grammy Award winning band, Ranky Tanky.
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