Local Community Choirs Celebrate Gullah Culture

February 2, 2023

In a memorable, collaborative, interactive and multigenerational performance, the GRAMMY® award-winning group from South Carolina, Ranky Tanky, impressed audiences on Saturday, January 28 at your Fox Cities P.A.C. Effortlessly blending Gullah culture tradition and jazz to produce a contemporary yet familiar feel, this band has a way of engaging all who watch and listen. At the start of the 2nd set of the show, Ranky Tanky was joined onstage with 100 members of all ages from local community choirs, Appleton Boychoir, Lawrence Community Girl Choir and NEWVoices to perform two pieces. As Community Engagement Partners for Ranky Tanky, the choirs were pleased to take part in a cultural performance, exploring the sounds and traditions of African American culture in the coastal South during slavery. Various members from the three respective choirs and Quentin E. Baxter of Ranky Tanky shared their thoughts on the high energy and educational concert and what this partnership means.

Advancing conversations about culture and traditions, Ranky Tanky uses the opportunity to educate audiences about Gullah culture through “educational outreach opportunities, interviews, and dialogue and introductions” during performances. For the band, a performance is more than just standing up on stage and projecting their music to the audience. As evidenced on the January 28 concert, Ranky Tanky’s members educated the audience throughout their sets, explaining what they were hearing and seeing. They even provided examples of Gullah music that people may be familiar with including the African American spiritual song, “Kum ba yah” (“Come by here”) and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” by the Highwaymen. These examples demonstrate that Gullah culture is more integrated in our lives than we even realize. During the show, Ranky Tanky also encouraged everyone to clap along and take part in call-and-response sections in select songs, making the performance a communal experience.

Speaking of community, I spoke with many choir members about what this collaboration with Ranky Tanky meant. Ranging from young school children to adults, this merging of three local choirs celebrated many generations and their love of public choral singing as well as cultural expression. Performing the band’s original, “Freedom”, followed by “You Better Mind” (as sung by Ranky Tanky), the audience was able to feel the magnitude and power of what a hundred voices can do. Lil, a high school senior who has been a part of the Lawrence Community Girl Choir for six years shared, “I think that the Fox Cities P.A.C. is a great place to perform and it’s fun to have a choir performing with the band. Having other choir members like my dad (in NEWVoices), my fellow choir mates and the Appleton Boychoir combine… It was nice to have all the people to sing with.”

Dave Frederick, member of NEWVoices remarked, “It was an absolute honor and privilege to perform alongside a GRAMMY® award-winning group like Ranky Tanky.” Later, I connected with Kelly Hanink, another member of NEWVoices who elaborated further, “It’s fun to have different voices and ages from the local region perform and to see that all come together.”

Speaking on behalf of the Appleton Boychoir as its conductor and Artistic Director, Dr. Kevin Meidl, said, “Anytime you bring people of all ages, including children, through the arts, it makes them better people. For some of these boys, this is their first time performing. This experience of singing with world-class talent and other community members will impact them for the rest of their lives, influencing whatever course they choose to pursue.”

Providing some more information about the quintet’s start and inspiration, Ranky Tanky’s drummer/percussionist/arranger/producer/founding member Quentin E. Baxter obliged. As friends for more than 20 years and having performed together in different capacities, Ranky Tanky’s guitarist/vocalist Clay Ross suggested forming the band to celebrate music of the Gullah culture in a more secular approach than the church setting they were used to while still maintaining the culture’s spirituality. Drawing inspiration from kid’s games, rhythmic patterns, messages of positivity, lullabies and more familiar to the Gullah community, Ranky Tanky incorporates these stories into a contemporary and powerful sound. “As a descendant of the Gullah culture and life-long musician who got his musical start playing drums in church, I provide a “first-hand” source of cultural authenticity and influence to our songs via rhythmic approach, arranging and production,” Quentin remarked.

Feeling inspired by a remarkably jovial and moving performance, I couldn’t help but clap and sing along with audience members during the January 28 performance. This was a community concert experience like no other – a true treat for the eyes, ears and the soul.

To read more about the Center’s 2022-23 Season Community Engagement Partners, click the link and watch for more blogs about each partner throughout this season.