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Ranky Tanky Builds On The Music And Culture Of Slave Descendants

Three members of Ranky Tanky perform songs from their debut album. The band's name and music derive from the tradition of slave descendants known as the Gullah. Originally broadcast Dec. 12, 2017.


Other segments from the episode on December 12, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 25, 2017: Interview with the band Ranky Tanky; Review of the album Face Your Fear."


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Merry Christmas. Today we start our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. For this Christmas day, we've chosen a recent show that we think will be great for family listening and fun if you're stuck in holiday traffic. It's an interview with and performance by three members of the band Ranky Tanky. That's a Gullah expression that loosely translated means funky.

Gullah is the culture that developed among the slaves and their descendants living on the South Carolina coast and Sea Islands, a culture influenced by West Africa. Gullah culture comes with its own dialect, food traditions and music. The members of Ranky Tanky are from South Carolina. They perform songs that come out of or became popular in Gullah culture, including spirituals, dance music and children's rhymes. Ranky Tanky is made up of four jazz musicians who started playing together nearly 20 years ago, then went their separate ways and reunited for Ranky Tanky and also lead singer Quiana Parler.

She's performed everything from gospel to pop and R&B. She studied with an opera singer as a child and got pretty close to being a finalist in the second season of "American Idol." She's joining us along with guitarist and singer Clay Ross, who started the band, and trumpeter and singer Charlton Singleton, whose family is from one of the South Carolina islands. Before we hear them perform for us, let's start with a track from their new debut album "Ranky Tanky." This is "That's Alright."


RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Mama, how you walk in line. Your (unintelligible) may slip and your soul may lull. Says my soul going to sit up in the kingdom. That's all right. That's all right. That's all right. That's all right. It'll be all right. My soul's going to sit up in the kingdom. That's all right. Jacob's ladder so long and tall. You ain't got God, so you're sure to fall. Says my soul's going to sit up in the kingdom. That's all right. That's all right. That's all right.


GROSS: That's "That's Alright" from the new album "Ranky Tanky," which is also the name of the band. Three of the members of the band are with us. Clay Ross, Quiana Parler, Charlton Singleton, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is such a pleasure to have you here. And thank you for bringing your instruments.

CHARLTON SINGLETON: Well, thank you for having us.

CLAY ROSS: Thank you.

QUIANA PARLER: Thank you for having us.

GROSS: My pleasure. So, Clay, you organized the band. It was your idea to do this band playing songs from Gullah culture.

ROSS: Yes, Ma'am.

GROSS: But you are not from that culture. (Laugher) You grew up in Piedmont, N.C.


ROSS: No, I'm not. Yeah, it's a little bit...

GROSS: You moved to Charleston, S.C., for college. I should also mention you're white. You're the white member of the band.


ROSS: I'm white? What? Are you - no, I am white. You got me.

GROSS: So how come you're the one who started the band?

SINGLETON: You broke the news for him.


ROSS: So I basically grew up in the suburbs of Anderson, S.C., which is the Piedmont and later discovered - you know, the Piedmont is quite a hotbed of Southern roots music as well. But I wasn't really exposed to that greatly growing up. When I came to Charleston, I was playing classical guitar and studying guitar at the school. And an early memory is walking into a cafe called Clara's Coffee Shop (ph), and I heard this jazz group, and it was one of my first experiences even hearing a live jazz band. And it was Charlton Singleton and Quentin Baxter, who are now, you know, members of Ranky Tanky.

And they were playing, I think, "Autumn Leaves" or some jazz standard and then, you know, in the same breath, they'd launch into "Wade In The Water," a song that is just ubiquitous in Gullah culture. I wasn't really familiar with what that was at that time, but it's something that - it just spoke to me, and it moved me, and it really changed my life. And I started to pursue jazz, study jazz music and bug them relentlessly...


ROSS: ...To make music with me.


ROSS: And they became...

GROSS: OK, let me stop you there. So Charlton, when Clay was bugging you to do Gullah music, what was your reaction?

SINGLETON: Well, at first, back then, what he's talking about now, he was just trying to learn how to play jazz.


SINGLETON: It wasn't until - and that was in the mid-to-late '90s. But then about three years ago, maybe about 2 1/2 or three years ago, you know, we were all still friends, and we all kept in contact and everything. And Clay came up with this idea. And he was like, hey, man, have y'all ever heard this song? You know, and he would play something like "That's Alright" for us or he would play just some Gullah song. And Quentin and I looked at each other. We're like, of course we know that song.

And he was like, you know, isn't this great? And I was like, yeah. He's like, and how did you hear that song? Man, I've been listening to that since I can remember, since I was, like, 3, you know? And so Clay came up with the idea of doing this band. And, you know, like he said, you know, on a few occasions, you know, being, you know, from the outside, you know, looking in and thinking about the music and hearing it and how, you know, it's just not as popular or not as existent as it is where we're from, you know, out in the world...

ROSS: And it was funny when I first came with - to them with the idea - I mean, to make a long story short, they were early mentors of mine, and we kept in touch. And I left for New York City almost 15 years ago to pursue jazz music. And everywhere I'd go, I'd - especially involved in the world music community - I'd see all these groups celebrating music from all over the world.

And I said, well, man, no one is really doing this contemporary version of our music from South Carolina and this music that sort of by happens chance (ph) was music that inspired me deeply and even as a young man. And I wanted to try to share that with the world, and I knew exactly who I wanted to do it with. And when I first brought them the idea, they really laughed at me, man (laughter). I mean, they were like - they were kind of like, well, why would we do that? (Laughter).

SINGLETON: Well, I mean, think about it. Think about it. I mean, just - that's how we grew up, so it was every day. So, you know, you just - after a while, you figure, you know, everybody knows it or that's just the norm for me.

GROSS: So Quiana, you didn't grow up with Gullah culture either, right?

PARLER: No, I didn't. But, you know, the songs I grew up with in church. And even if it wasn't the exact words, it was the styling. So Charlton likes to say, you know, the elders in the church would say, we'd like to raise up a song. You know, whatever you're going through, you sing at the moment.

SINGLETON: And if you look at a lot of the - you know, the names of the tracks and you listen to the songs, then you can hear at least something in one of those songs where, you know, it's a decry. It's a cry for, you know, help from the Lord or it's something that has something to do with spirituality.

PARLER: Thanking the Lord.

SINGLETON: You know, but they're also little kids' games and things like that. But that's part of the culture. It's all wrapped up in that Gullah culture.

GROSS: Yeah, you mentioned the kids' games. And a couple of the songs on your new "Ranky Tanky" album have kids' rhymes in them that are very rhythmic.

ROSS: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And so can you talk about and maybe sing a few of those rhymes and tell us how they figure into the music?

ROSS: Well, yeah, that'd be great. Why don't we do the "One-ry, Two-ry" (ph)? This is a really good one.

SINGLETON: Oh, yeah.

ROSS: And actually, just to preface this because I want to make sure that I honor someone who really did a lot to make this band possible from a previous generation, who is Bessie Jones. And I think without her foresight and will and drive to record and document a lot of these songs - she made a book with Alan Lomax's wife that - called "Step It Down," which is an amazing book that illustrates a lot of these games. And this is where we've revived and been inspired and gotten a lot of these songs directly from this book. And this next one is like that.

These are two different little poems, I guess. And it's cool because they say that you almost could see - hear how these are, like, from Celtic roots, almost, and the kind of Gaelic - almost the Gaelic kind of language. And you can hear the direct pollination of cultures, which is, you know, African, West African rhythmic culture and, like, a British colonial life. And that's what's really, I think, one of the most unique things about Gullah culture - is that pure mix of cultures. One, two, one, two.

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) One-ry, two-ry, dicker-y seven. Halli-boo, crack-iboo, 10, 11. Pee, po, must be done. Twinkle, twangle, 21. One saw, two saw, ziggy-zaw-zoe. Bobtail dominicker, deedle daw doe. Hail 'em, scale 'em, Virgin Mary, ike to my link - tum buck (ph).

GROSS: Oh, great.


ROSS: I don't know if you'd hear it quite that way, like, if kids are singing it. But we kind of made a little harmony with it.

SINGLETON: Yeah, I think probably the best one is actually the "Ranky Tanky" song.

ROSS: Yeah, that's good, right.

SINGLETON: You know, just with the lyrics on that - and actually, there are a few recordings out there of kids doing that, you know, as the game aspect. And the musicality from our side was taking that game and building some music around it in order to present it, you know, as the "Ranky Tanky" song that you hear on the recording.

GROSS: So let's hear "Ranky Tanky," the title track of the new album. "Ranky Tanky" is also the name of the band. A few of the members of the band are my guests - Clay Ross, who we'll hear singing lead vocal - he's also the guitarist - Quiana Parler, who's actually the main singer with the group, and Charlton Singleton, who's featured on trumpet and also vocals.


RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Who is the greatest? We are the greatest. Are you sure? Yeah. Positive? Yeah. Definitive? Yeah. All right. All right. Old lady come from Booster, had two hens and a rooster. The rooster died, the old lady cried. Now she don't eat eggs like she used to. Old lady come from Booster, had two hens and a rooster. Rooster died, the old lady cried. Now she don't eat eggs like she used to. Oh, Ma, you look so - oh, Pa, you look so - I said, who been here since I've been gone? Two little boys with the blue caps on. Leaning on a hickory stick, Papa gonna slap them good. Slap. Pain in my head, ranky tanky. Pain in my heart, ranky tanky. Pain in my feet, ranky tanky. Pain all over me. Pain in my head, ranky tanky. Pain in my heart, ranky tanky. Pain in my feet, ranky tanky. Pain all over me.

GROSS: That's the title track of the album "Ranky Tanky." Three of the members of the band Ranky Tanky are my guests - Clay Ross, who's a guitarist and singer, Quiana Parler, who's the main singer of the group, and Charlton Singleton, who's the trumpeter and also singer. So tell us about the rhymes in "Ranky Tanky."

SINGLETON: So, if you listen to the lyrics of the song where it says, old lady come from Booster, had two hens and a rooster. The rooster died. The old lady cried. Now she don't eat eggs like she used to. Now, imagine, you know, two - usually, you see two little girls probably playing, like, patty-cake, a little hand game or something like that. Now put those words into it, and there you have the game. And, you know, (singing) old lady come from Booster, had two hens and a rooster. The rooster died. The old lady cried. Now she don't eat eggs like she used to.

So you've got that aspect, definitely. We add in the Gullah rhythm, if you will and put in a good bass line with it. And there you have "Ranky Tanky."

GROSS: OK, so we're talking about how Gullah music has rhythms that are maybe a little different from what you were used to playing in bands. Though Charlton, this music was always a part of your life. But as the trumpeter, Charlton, is there anything unique to what you're doing on trumpet that is different when you're playing music from the Gullah tradition than when you're playing in a jazz band?

SINGLETON: Not too...

GROSS: Not much, huh? (Laughter) OK.

SINGLETON: ...Different. Not - it's not - it's not that terribly different. I grew up - you know, my first music lesson I can recall - or at least that I think it was my first music lesson - was actually from my grandfather, who is, you know, directly descended from the, you know, Gullah. You know, he was born in 1892 on Capers Island, one of these small islands, just like, you know, the other islands off of the coast.

And when he was - I think Big Daddy was 6 or 8 or something around there - where there was a really big hurricane that came and forced all of them to seek higher ground, and that's how they ended up in the small community of Awendaw - or Ten Mile, we call it - which is about 14 miles going north of the city of Charleston.

And he would always sit all of his grandkids and great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids up until he passed away - he made it to 100. But he would sit all of us down and he would sing to us and he would clap to us. And I think that's where I get my music from. I had to have been around 2 or something around that. But he would - he'd put us in front of him. And you'd sit down and he would stomp on the floor, and he would keep this steady beat going on the floor. And then he would clap this other rhythm. (Clapping). And that's just - that's the Gullah rhythm.

That's the basis for it all. You will hear that in - and when you're listening to Ranky Tanky. If you go to a church in the low country, if you go to a Baptist church or an AME church or any of the historically black denominations church, you're going to hear that beat in the low country. That's just a given. You know, whether it's a slow song or a fast song, whether it's a hymn, whether it's a gospel song, you're going to hear that. And so he would keep that steady - you know, four on the floor with his foot. And then he would clap, and then he would sing to us. And he would just go (singing) jump, baby, jump. Jump, baby, jump. Jump, baby, jump.

And we'd just sit there and jump, you know, just in any way, shape or form. You know, we were, you know, 2 or 3 or 4 years old. And, you know - and then he'd go, (singing) fall, baby, fall. And then you'd dive on the floor. And everybody gets a laugh, you know, something like that. But I think, looking back on it, that that was, you know, the thing for me - that rhythm, you know? It's embedded in everybody in the low country. That's the rhythm. That's definitely it.

GROSS: I'll tell you what. Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more, and we'll hear some music. If you're just joining us, my guests are three of the members of the band Ranky Tanky, which plays music from the Gullah tradition but in a contemporary setting. My guests are Clay Ross, who's a guitarist and singer, Quiana Parler, who's the main singer with the band, and Charlton Singleton, who is a trumpeter and singer. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are trumpeter Charlton Singleton, guitarist Clay Ross and singer Quiana Parler, three members of the band Ranky Tanky, which plays contemporary versions of music from the Gullah culture of the South Carolina coast and Sea Islands. Their debut album is called "Ranky Tanky." When we left off, we were talking about Gullah rhythms.

Clay, did you have to adapt to that rhythm playing guitar with Ranky Tanky?

ROSS: You know, that's a good question. You know, I think that the - coming back to this project after years of doing other kinds of music was really the only way that it would've worked. And so a lot of the rhythms that I play on the guitar are actually - they're rhythms that I play a lot when I play Brazilian music. And while there isn't a specific guitar tradition associated with Gullah culture because it's traditionally an a capella music with hand claps and singing, so the instrumental elements of the music are something that we are kind of contributing.

And I think specifically with the guitar, a lot of the rhythmic patterns that I use come from forro music and northeastern Brazilian music. And when you look at it, like, the history of those musical cultures and the story of the transatlantic slave trade and African diasporas in the Americas, I mean, it makes sense because it's really from the same source.

GROSS: Maybe you can play some of the Brazilian music...

ROSS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Brazilian rhythms that you play and compare that to what you're doing with Ranky Tanky?

ROSS: Yeah. Let me give you an example. So there's, like, a forro rhythm, like, a - (playing guitar, singing in Portuguese).

And this rhythm is the same rhythm that I use a lot in Ranky Tanky. So I got - (singing) Old lady come from Booster. Had two hens and a rooster. Rooster died, old lady cried. Now she don't eat eggs like she used to.

So it's the same.

GROSS: Yeah, I hear that.

ROSS: Yeah. And, you know, and it's different in so many ways because everything that the drummer is playing - like, the way that a Brazilian drummer plays is, like, really on top of the beat. And it's, like, you never drag when you're playing Brazilian music. It's just like (imitating drumbeat). It's this intensity. And in our music in the Gullah tradition - or I just find - it's not something that we even talk about. But, like, the way Quentin or CL play - Calvin Baxter is the other drummer who's Quentin's nephew who plays incredibly and plays with us. And both of them are just - they are, like, Grillo-level (ph) drummers. I mean, it's a family tradition. It's just deep, deep, deep in their DNA. Their mom plays the drums, you know?



ROSS: And the way that they play, it's like that rhythmic core and that cell of the rhythm is there. But the way that they do it - they'll, like, let the beat breathe in this really organic way, and there'll be, like, these big pauses before a downbeat sometimes and a big breath in between each beat. So it's very - it's the same but very different.

GROSS: My guests are three members of the band Ranky Tanky, which is also the name of their debut album. We'll talk more and they'll play more music after a break. And Ken Tucker will review the new album by Curtis Harding, a former backup singer for CeeLo Green. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Turtle dove done drooped his wings. Turtle dove done drooped his wings. Turtle dove done drooped his wings, went onto Zion hill to sing. Adam and Eve, door to door, Adam and Eve, don't tell that to me. Meet me at the door. Don't tell that to me. Sa sa la do, oh, sa la so ree (ph). My name is written on David's line. My name is written on David's line. My name is written on David's line, going to go to heaven on the wheels of time. Adam and Eve, door to door, Adam and Eve, don't tell that to me. Meet me at the door. Don't tell that to me. Sa sa la do, oh, sa la so ree (ph).

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with three members of the band Ranky Tanky, which plays contemporary versions of music from the Gullah culture, the culture of the slaves and their descendants from the South Carolina coast and Sea Islands. Their debut album is called "Ranky Tanky." My guests are lead singer Quiana Parler, guitarist Clay Ross and trumpeter Charlton Singleton.

So Quiana, when you were introduced to Gullah music through joining this band, what's an example of a song that you fell in love with that you had not heard before?

PARLER: I guess, well, "O Death." I love "O Death," even though it's a song about death.


PARLER: I mean, I do. Clay...

GROSS: I'll stop you right there because I love your version of "O Death." Would you be willing to sing it for us?

PARLER: Yeah. You know, one thing that's very, I guess, in the African American church, we celebrate death. You know, you're home going. It's a celebration because you're going to meet Jesus. But we also ask, can the spirits live another day? You know, that's why it's one of my favorites. I love "O Death."

GROSS: Please sing it for us. It's so beautiful, yeah.

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Oh, Death walked up to the sinner gate, said believed you have waited now a little too late. Your fever is well past 102, a narrow chance that you'll ever pull through. Cried, oh, Death. Oh, Death, the morning. Oh, Death, won't you spare me over till another year? Now, you heard God's people sing and pray. You would not heed, just walked away. You would not even bend a knee. Well, now you have got to come and go with me. Cried, oh, Death. Oh, Death, the morning. Oh, Death, won't you spare me over till another year? Cried, oh, Death. Oh, Death, the morning. Oh, Death, won't you spare me over till another year?

GROSS: Oh, gosh, that sounds so great. That's Quiana Parler singing, Clay Ross on guitar, Charlton Singleton, trumpet. What kind of songs, Quiana, did you sing in church?

PARLER: I sang "Oh, Mary, Don't You Eat." I sang "I Got To Serve The Lord Until I Die." Do you remember that one, Charlton?

SINGLETON: Vaguely, but, yeah.

PARLER: And, you know, that rhythm was still in the church for me too, you know.


PARLER: Because we didn't have drums in the church.


PARLER: So this is what we had.

SINGLETON: You clapped.

PARLER: And our feet.

SINGLETON: And you stomped your feet.

PARLER: Yeah, that was it.

SINGLETON: That's it.


GROSS: Charlton, you actually grew up in Gullah culture. Your grandfather is from one of the Sea Islands off the South Carolina coast.


GROSS: There's a song on the album called "Watch That Star" that you have a personal connection to through your grandfather. I'm going to ask you to do that song. But before that, I want to hear the story behind the song.

SINGLETON: Well, Big Daddy, as he was affectionately called, when he was a young man and he was seeking the Lord, he told us - his kids, you know, my father, my aunts and uncles and everybody else, all the grands and great-grands - that this is the song that when he was seeking the Lord that the Lord gave to him. And it has, I guess, the chorus from "Watch That Star" in it. And it's slightly different. Now, Big Daddy's song is affectionately known as "Mary Weep Martha Mourn."

GROSS: Quiana, can you sing the Ranky Tanky version of "Watch That Star" - just a verse or two of that?


RANKY TANKY: (Singing) The day has passed and gone. The evening shades are pinned. All my way, I remember well the night of death is near. Watch that star. See how it runs. Watch that star. See how it runs. If the star run down on the western hills, you ought to watch that star. See how it runs.

GROSS: Aw, that's beautiful. Thank you so much for doing that.

PARLER: Thank you.

GROSS: Your harmonies are great together. Did you automatically know how to harmonize with each other? Or did you have to, like, work it out?

SINGLETON: I think that's a little combination 'cause part of it is, you know, knowing what the melody is and who's singing, you know, the melody in that song. And then we basically just sat around and figured out what part that we were going to do based off of whatever chord was being played and, you know, the vocal range of whoever was singing the harmony.

That's the musical terms of it. In the Gullah culture, though, you know, when somebody raises up a song, or someone sings a song, then everybody else just finds their part. You know, sometimes in musical terms, it might not be the traditional voice leading that you might want to do. But as long as you harmonized and as long as it sounded good, it was fair game.

ROSS: I think that's also a reason why - another way that our expression of Gullah music is a more contemporary one in that we've definitely, like, shaped the harmonies in the songs that we do. I mean, Charlton has perfect pitch. We went to music school. We, you know, write charts. And, you know, we look at the harmony and analyze in a way what we're singing so that it, you know, does the most it can do, from a lot of different perspectives. And I've definitely had people in the community tell me, oh, when you start doing that to it, it messes it up.


SINGLETON: Yeah, oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, there was some people at home in my community. They were like, that's not how the song goes.

ROSS: Yeah, totally.


SINGLETON: You know, but they're supportive, and they were like, well, I understand, y'all are doing it - y'all youngsters - yeah, you...

ROSS: Yeah (laughter).

PARLER: Youngsters.

SINGLETON: In your contemporary way - yeah, you youngsters, you young kids out there.

GROSS: Well, Charlton, I'd imagine a lot of people say, what's a trumpet doing playing Gullah music?

SINGLETON: Exactly. You know, because - you know, like Quiana said, it was just hand claps and you stomping your feet, and that was the music - your voice, your hands and your feet.

GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here? And then we'll be right back and hear more music. If you're just joining us, my guests are three members of the band Ranky Tanky, which plays contemporary versions of Gullah music, music from the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands. My guests are Clay Ross, who's a guitarist and singer, Quiana Parler, who is the group's main singer, and Charlton Singleton, who's a trumpeter and singer.

We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are three members of the band Ranky Tanky. And that's also the title of their new album. They're a band that plays music from the Gullah culture, the culture of the islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. This is Gullah music but in a really contemporary setting - with trumpet, which is played by my guest, Charlton Singleton, guitar played by my guest Clay Ross, and Quiana Parler is the main singer with the band. She's also with us.

Charlton, since you grew up in South Carolina and your grandfather was from one of the Sea Islands - I think you said that he moved to the mainland because of a hurricane. Did hurricanes figure a lot in family lore?

SINGLETON: I think, you know, any sort of storm that would come, you know, where we live - you know, it's always a hurricane. With regards to the Gullah communities, that's just something that, you know, they had to deal with. You know, going to higher ground is what everybody tells you - seek higher ground, move, go to a higher place.

You know, you can interpret that a lot of different ways. You know, you want to get higher to get closer to God. You know, that's the safety. Go to safety. Go higher.

PARLER: Yeah, even "Been In The Storm."

SINGLETON: "Been In The Storm" - when - you know, I get chills every time I hear Quiana sing "Been In The Storm," which is on our album. And, you know, it's just - it's a powerful song. But, yeah, when my grandfather was, you know, just a little boy - I think maybe that was in 1898. But, you know, they basically got on a little raft, and they floated from Capers Island over to the mainland, which turned out to be where Awendaw, S.C., sort of begins, and...

GROSS: Where you grew up?

SINGLETON: Where - that's where I grew up, yeah, and...

GROSS: So since you mentioned "Been In The Storm," Quiana, would you sing a little bit of it?

PARLER: (Singing) I've been in the storm so long. You know that I, I've been in the storm so long. I'm crying, oh, Lord. Give me more time to pray. You know I've been in the storm so very long.

GROSS: Thank you. Songs like that that you just sang and songs like "O Death" that you sang for us earlier, those are just, like, emotionally devastating songs.



GROSS: What...


GROSS: What goes through your mind or your body as you sing songs like that?

PARLER: You know, those are the two songs that really drain me emotionally. And I've been trained to not, you know, use my emotions and what I'm dealing with. And, you know, there's - but I'm human at the same time, you know? I lost one of my really good friends while we were out on the road, and I tried so hard not to cry. And then I did - was it "O Death"?

SINGLETON: Mmm-hmm (ph).

PARLER: And I just lost it. Like, it was just - no, that - it was "That's Alright," which is about death as well. And it was suddenly that we lost her, and it was just so hard. It was one time I could not be the performer. It just came through, like, really bad.

GROSS: Yeah.

ROSS: I think sometimes bringing - these songs, they bring peoples in touch and so close to pain and their suffering that is just the common thread of all humanity. And everybody deals with that in one way or another. And I think these songs allow us to get close to that in a safe space, and to share that together and commune with one another around that. And it's just powerful and beautiful.

GROSS: You know, just to change subjects just a little bit, Charlton, you've been playing in the studio today. You've been using a mute. And the mute that you're using is actually I think a plunger, right? Is it...

SINGLETON: It is, yes.

GROSS: Is it a sink plunger or a toilet plunger?


SINGLETON: It is for a sink. For a trumpet and the size of the bell that I have, yes, a sink plunger is the best fit. If you see a trombonist, they would have one that was the size for a toilet.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. I love mutes. Can you do some fancy mute thing for us?

SINGLETON: All right. (Playing muted trumpet).

GROSS: Great. (Laughter). It has been so great to speak with the three of you and to hear you sing and play. I'm really grateful, and I want to thank you so much. And before you go, you have to tell us, what does Ranky Tanky mean?

ROSS: Ranky Tanky means get funky.


SINGLETON: That's what it means. Yeah. That's the loose translation.

ROSS: It means get funky. Yeah. Shake it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PARLER: She's like, OK.


GROSS: And Ranky Tanky is the name of the band and the name of their new album. So Clay Ross, Quiana Parler, Charlton Singleton, thank you all so much, and good luck to you and the band. It's been great to have you here.

PARLER: Thank you.

ROSS: So honored. Thanks so much for having us.

SINGLETON: Thank you so much. This has been truly an honor. Thank you.

GROSS: And I want to end with the final song on your album because it's such the obvious song to end with. It is called, "Goodbye Song." (Laughter). So thank you all.

SINGLETON: Thank you.

PARLER: Thank you.


RANKY TANKY: (Singing) Got to be going. Goodbye. Got to be leaving. Goodbye. So nice to meet you. Goodbye. So nice to see you. Goodbye. Got to be going. Goodbye. Got to be leaving. Goodbye. Can't wait to meet you. Goodbye. All nice people. Goodbye. Got to be going. Goodbye. Got to be leaving. Goodbye. So nice to meet you. Goodbye All the nice people. Goodbye. I've got to be going. Goodbye. Got to be leaving. Goodbye. Can't wait to meet you. Goodbye. So nice to see you. Goodbye.

GROSS: The Ranky Tanky band members joined us from the Argot Studio in New York. Our thanks to engineer Ivan Koreyev (ph). Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album by Curtis Harding. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Curtis Harding is an Atlanta-based singer and songwriter who got his start as a backup singer with Cee Lo Green. His new album, called "Face Your Fear," was co-produced by Danger Mouse, who's made hits with Green, The Black Keys and Adele. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.


CURTIS HARDING: (Singing) I feel so blue without you, girl. I need your love. That's why I'm down 'cause you're not around now. I need your love.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Tight and precise, Curtis Harding nails down every syllable he articulates on "Need Your Love," a crisp bit of soul-shouting on his new album, "Face Your Fear." Now in his late 30s, Harding seems to possess a deep knowledge of the past half-century of rhythm and blues. Working with co-producers Danger Mouse and Sam Cohen, Harding makes it sound easy to toss off an impeccable piece of Motown pop, like "On And On."


HARDING: (Singing) I'm going to keep rolling on, on, no matter what the world may do, do. 'Cause with a love like this, like this, there's nothing left to do, do. So let me tell ya. Doesn't matter what you say. I'm still, I'm still going to floor away for real. In a minute, y'all, I'll be gone. Right or wrong, I'm ma just keep rolling on and on, and on and on.

TUCKER: If all Harding did was emulate his elders, he'd be a solid musical impersonator. But he's more than that. Listen to the ambitious piece of music that leads off his album, a composition called "Wednesday Morning Atonement," sung in the voice of a wandering father trying to explain a long absence from his children. The melody is sorrowful and deliberate. Harding's singing is so direct it refuses any excuses or self-pity. It's the sound of a man accepting the blame and reproach he deserves.


HARDING: (Singing) Hello, children. Well, it's been such a very long time. Now I've finally found the mind to explain where I've been living. I know I'm here to stay, waiting on this better day. Listen, please, child. There was something in the way that I finally can say that I love you. I want you to know. There was something in the way. Now I finally can stay 'cause I love you, 'cause I love you.

TUCKER: Curtis Harding most often curls his voice upward into a blue falsetto. It is inevitably reminiscent of another Curtis, Curtis Mayfield. Harding uses that voice with a cold firmness on the album's title song, "Face Your Fear."


HARDING: (Singing) You can scream if you want to, baby, but no one can hear. You can fight through the night, but by daylight, you'll disappear. If there's a way to be OK, I'm sorry, it's just not clear. While you lay, let me say that you're the only one here. By the way, maybe, don't worry. It's OK. Just face your fear. Just face your fear.

TUCKER: For a singer who's so attuned to the sounds and styles of old pop music, you'd think Harding would be best served by quick songs with concentrated little verse-chorus-verse structures. But that's not always the case here. He achieves some of his best effects when a melody unfurls at a more leisurely pace, when his melancholy has the opportunity to explain itself at length. That's true of "Wednesday Morning Atonement," which I played earlier, and it's very true of a languid ballad that arrives late in this album, called, "Ghost Of You."


HARDING: (Singing) There was a time when I could touch you, baby. Now you don't even feel. And your house is growing colder and colder. So now that it's over, I know it doesn't matter where I go, I know that you won't ever show. Doesn't matter what I do, just living with the ghost of you.

TUCKER: Curtis Harding makes music whose originality emerges from the contrasting pop genres being blended. Lyrics are less important than the stories told by his shifts in tone and emphasis. There's a searching earnestness throughout "Face Your Fear" that denies all irony or artifice. It suggests that for Harding, facing fear involves doing his best to sound as though he's dropping his guard and letting you in.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Curtis Harding's new album, "Face Your Fear." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we continue our holiday week series featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year and listen back to my interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the musical "Hamilton." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Therese Madden directed today's show. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Molly Seavy-Nesper is our associate producer of digital media. I'm Terry Gross. Merry Christmas from all of us at FRESH AIR. We'll close with the song that's still my favorite classic Christmas song. This is Judy Garland from the movie "Meet Me In St. Louis," which is still my favorite classic Christmas movie.


JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. Next year all our troubles will be out of sight. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Make the yuletide gay. Next year all our troubles will be miles away. Once again, as in olden days, happy golden days of yore, faithful friends who were near to us will be dear to us once more. Someday soon, we all will be together, if the fates allow. Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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