Combo crafts modern interpretations of traditional Gullah Geechee music

Ranky Tanky and Lisa Fischer will ‘get funky’ Saturday at Atlanta’s Rialto Center for the Arts.
Ranky Tanky formed in 2016 to create modern interpretations of traditional Gullah music. Photo: Courtesy of Ranky Tanky / Peter Frank Edwards

Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

Credit: Peter Frank Edwards

Ranky Tanky formed in 2016 to create modern interpretations of traditional Gullah music. Photo: Courtesy of Ranky Tanky / Peter Frank Edwards

Ranky Tanky is a song, a band, an admonition and a way of life — all of them intertwined and growing out of the Gullah Geechee culture of coastal South Carolina, Georgia and their sea islands.

It was there that West African enslaved people and their descendants established a unique language, culture and music that continues today, and nowhere with more joy and noise than this weekend at the Rialto Center for the Arts, when the five-person musical ensemble Ranky Tanky teams up with Grammy-winning R&B singer Lisa Fischer.

“‘Ranky Tanky’ is a Gullah phrase that means ‘work it’ or ‘get funky,’” said lead singer Quiana Parler. “One thing about the Gullah people is they were happy people no matter what they were going through. Hardship, death, there was always happiness and joy.”

The Gullah people despise inactivity, she said.

“They also believed that rigidity is next to death, so they never wanted to stay still,” she added. “Just keep working and having a good time and make fun out of it. We all use it in our daily lives. It’s just been instilled in us from day one: Do not sit still.”

Singer Lisa Fischer has been well-known in musical circles for decades but got a big boost with the 2013 movie “20 Feet from Stardom” about Fischer, Merry Clayton and other somewhat unsung backup singers. She’s been dubbed the “high priestess of shamanistic rock and soul” and toured with The Rolling Stones and Luther Vandross. She makes audiences go wild at her solo shows when she tears into the opening howl of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song.”

Lisa Fischer has been dubbed the “high priestess of shamanistic rock and soul.” Courtesy of Lisa Fischer

Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Fischer

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Credit: Courtesy of Lisa Fischer

She first heard Ranky Tanky at New York City’s Sony Hall when they opened for her.

“I thought to myself, ‘I should be opening for them,’” she recalled, “because I was so blown away by their sound, delivery and purpose.”

They teamed up and now share the stage on this tour, with neither as opener nor headliner. Parler sings (as do Ranky Tanky members Charlton Singleton and Clay Ross) with the band doing their contemporary Gullah songbook, then Fischer sings classic rock and R&B with the band, and sometimes everybody joins in for one big gumbo billed as a “funky fusion of Gullah and R&B.”

“I felt joy from the moment we got together,” Fischer said. “But once I felt comfy after finding my placement within the group, it was icing on the cake. They are a joy to work with. It’s like being with family, you know?”

Charleston-based Ranky Tanky formed in May 2016, when guitarist Ross — the only member not descended from enslaved West Africans — suggested a group specializing in modern interpretations of traditional Gullah music to the four who are descended: Parler, trumpeter Singleton, drummer Quentin Baxter and bassist Kevin Hamilton.

The group won a 2019 Grammy Award for Best Regional Roots Album for its sophomore release “Good Time,” which also hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart. Fischer won her Grammy for Best Female R&B Performance for her song “How Can I Ease the Pain” in 1992.

Singing both lead and backup on this tour is natural for Fischer, who has bounced back and forth between the two her entire career.

“The landscape for lead is a continuous storytelling flow, while the background supports the flow for the lead singer in most cases,” she said. “And the backgrounds walk in time and space with each other while making sacred space for the lead at the same time. As far as vision, the music tends to dictate what that will be if you have the heart to listen. The song is the leader in those moments for the lead and background singers.”

The idea of sacred space is echoed by Parler, when she talks about how audiences are frequently impelled by the Gullah rhythms to get up and dance, even in venues that aren’t normally home to dancing.

“We play festivals and performing arts centers,” she said. “We’ve had people at performing arts centers get out of their seats and move to the sides so they can dance. There’s no rules and no limits. It’s like we say in church: Just go where the Holy Spirit leads you,” she adds.

In other words, do not sit still.


Ranky Tanky with Lisa Fischer

8 p.m. Saturday. $39-$81. Rialto Center for the Arts, 80 Forsyth St. NW, Atlanta. 404-413-9849,