Ranky Tanky's Self-Titled Debut Makes Traditional Gullah Songs New

Jan 11, 2018
Originally published on January 11, 2018 7:26 pm

The Gullah people of coastal Georgia and South Carolina trace their language and culture back to their West and Central African ancestors. Among the Gullah's unique contributions to African-American culture is a deeply distilled repertoire of spirituals and work songs. On the self-titled debut by the quintet Ranky Tanky, Gullah songs are lively, soulful honey to the ears.

The four core members of the band started as a jazz combo, fresh out of college in Charleston, S.C. Three of them grew up in Gullah country, steeped in its creolized cuisine, lifestyle and arts. But the idea of creating a band dedicated to Gullah songs only came together when they recruited Quiana Parler, their lead vocalist. Parler is Gullah herself, and an alumnus of American Idol as well.

Some of the oldest known African-American spirituals come from the Gullah, and they reflect a life of faith under harsh circumstances. On "Turtle Dove," Parler sings: "When I get to heaven I know the rules; kick 'em right down to the bathing pool."

But even when the lyrics are sad or stern, Ranky Tanky brings playfulness and warmth to the material, blending in elements of blues, jazz and R&B. On "Sink 'Em Low," a simple but powerful rendition of a traditional work song, Parler infuses the solemn lyrics with funk and soul. "Sink 'em low, boy, sink 'em low," she sings with joy. "Sink 'em low, boy, raise 'em high."

Everyone pulls their weight in this tight, efficient combo. But Quiana Parler's vocal is in a league of its own. With her range, power and control of subtle ornamentation, she could bring down the house all by herself. Her voice is the primary instrument of "Been in The Storm," backed by sparse, reverent drums.

Ranky Tanky brings freshness and uplift to overlooked Americana. In a pop music milieu ever hungry for newness, this group proves that the right musicians can make the past new all over again.

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Medical marijuana is legal in 29 states. In Vermont, it's been allowed for more than a decade. Yet medical patients can still have a hard time affording it. Vermont Public Radio's Emily Corwin has more.

EMILY CORWIN, BYLINE: Sixty-year-old MaryJane Sarvis is driving a red pickup truck.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: In half a mile, take a slight left turn onto Birch Street.


CORWIN: We're heading to a medical marijuana dispensary in Brattleboro, Vt. Sarvis usually goes to the dispensary closer to her home, but they don't carry a particular cannabis-infused vape pen she wants to try.

SARVIS: Specifically the one I want, the indica, for when you wake up in the middle of the night and you have a lot of pain and you can't go back to sleep.

CORWIN: Sarvis has permanent nerve pain from a childhood spine surgery. For over a decade, she managed the pain the way her doctors recommended, with ongoing prescribed opioids. Last year, Sarvis detoxed from opioids as an experiment to see if she would feel better with just marijuana. It worked. She says she has less pain and more energy.

SARVIS: Okie-doke (ph).

CORWIN: Now the pain is in her pocketbook. Sarvis says she spends about $200 a month on medical marijuana. Here at this dispensary she'll spend $110 on a single cannabis cartridge.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How can I help you?

SARVIS: Hi, I have an appointment, MaryJane Sarvis. I'm a little late 'cause I got sent off by Google to somewhere else.


CORWIN: Between 20 and 40 percent of Americans suffer from chronic pain. And today, a majority of Americans live in states where medical marijuana is legal. But even though Sarvis says medical marijuana works best for her, the opioids were cheaper.

SARVIS: You know, I can get an opioid for - a bottle of opioids for a dollar on my state insurance.

CORWIN: Vermont does require dispensaries to offer discounts for low-income patients, but they're small and not consistently available. Sarvis says she thinks her insurance, Medicaid, should cover her medical marijuana. But...

SCOTT STRENIO: There's really no mechanism in Medicaid to do that.

CORWIN: Dr. Scott Strenio administers the Medicaid program for the state of Vermont. He says the federal government won't allow states to cover medical marijuana with Medicaid dollars.

STRENIO: By virtue of being a Schedule I agent. I think that's the sticking point.

CORWIN: The Justice Department classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug along with heroin and LSD. That means it has no currently accepted medical use. A recent statement by Attorney General Jeff Sessions suggests the feds are hoping to make it harder, not easier, for Americans to use marijuana. In the meantime, MaryJane Sarvis is trying to find a solution she can afford. She's learning how to grow marijuana plants herself.

SARVIS: Huge learning curve. You need separate lights for starting the plants as to bringing them to flower. So I'm working on learning about that part.

CORWIN: Sarvis expects startup costs to run at least a thousand dollars. That's a lot for her. But she hopes growing her own marijuana will eventually be cost-effective. For NPR News, I'm Emily Corwin in Vermont.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIXIGA 70'S "VENTANIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.