Sing Across the Ocean

By  |  October 31, 2019
“Untitled,” by Keisha Scarville, from the series Mama’s Clothes “Untitled,” by Keisha Scarville, from the series Mama’s Clothes

South Carolina is our past and our future, and Ranky Tanky celebrates the middle


 

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ou could tell which ones was from down South because they was the ones clustered together with the proper footwork, perfectly spontaneous yet coordinated hand percussion, and the fearlessness to move in perpetual rhythm despite the fact that the sun had unceremoniously made us all twice-baked sweet potatoes. The Western Science reason for the sun having turned a few hundred humans into Whole30 side dishes is “climate change” or “July,” but the Spirit Science reason is we was on twice-stolen land. Central Park was first a part of Mannahatta, land that Lenape folks belonged to. But the Dutch, amongst others, forced and broke them from it, occupying and colonizing as they did, making it theirs rather than just asking permission to join in on belonging to it. Later, that land came to be owned by people, not the other way around as it had been, and it became known as Seneca Village, occupied by a majority African-descended community. This Black ownership of stolen land was different, contingent, not like owning in the usual way, the American way, the John Locke way. It didn’t matter what labor Black folks put into some land or democracy or nation or freedom or rhythm or color or flying. Didn’t make it theirs by law. So when white folks in charge of New York City got ready, they just up and demolished that community and its unequal bit of poison-pie wealth along with it and put this here park that we were being baked in over it. 

White folks had stole it once then stole it again to build a park “for all,” and by “for all” they meant for all the wealthy folks close enough to get to it, but they couldn’t cover over some heated spirits with leaky reparations. So I accepted that the main reasons why it felt like the devil had opened his wide ugly mouth special over this hippie summer concert fest—a.k.a. SummerStage, brought to you by the corporation far too damn nosy about what’s in your wallet, Capital One—was probably Black and indigenous ancestors’ anger and disappointment over theft, and perhaps a hex or a thousand. I couldn’t even tell which direction the ocean was. I moved several yards across the Astroturf covering the ground in front of the stage, first in mini-scoots trying to be invisible, then throwing my hips, left then right, in seated jumps, then just outright getting up and running the rest of the way over to the Southerners so that in the event that the ancestors got real angry and started smiting people I could be raptured with the rhythm section.

I danced and sang to the trumpet and threw my head up and back and down to the drums and wiggled my fingers to the voices and raised my arms in a V to the sky bass. I got in step with the other Southerners, saints celebrating and marching in, fire claps in our hands and magic tambourines making bumpy waves on the sides of our right thighs. The oxygen around me went on break a couple of times, and I had to just sit down, legs crossed, hiding from the sun, still participating, rocking and waving my hands hallelujah. I didn’t want the band and the rhythm section to think I wasn’t still with them. I sweated from my eyes and everywhere else. I didn’t get raptured I don’t think.

Everybody knows now that New York City exists as it does—as does the rest of the North, the South, Wall Street, the American West, the U.S., the so-called West, the so-called “global” South, over there, your Daddy, your Mama, and all your cousins—because of genocide and enslavement. Everybody knows that indigenous and Black folks had names and lives and places and traditions and contact and movement forever before the specific moment of world-ending that was genocide and enslavement. Every day we wake up, we quietly decide if the ground we on is worth what happened to people for us to be on it, and our range of gratitude for it, and what we are willing to do each day for its past, present, and future. I don’t dance as hard in mixed company these days because I am discerning the decisions other people made that morning as well as evaluating my own. It felt wrong to be finger popping and dancing Southern on some Astroturf in a park on Lenape land, on the rubble of Seneca Village. 

But it felt silly and downright ungrateful, like not appreciating that folks died so we could vote ungrateful, not to move. South Carolina’s Ranky Tanky had just come across the ocean from the European side of they tour and was up on that stage getting baked right along with us. Charlton on the horn blowing pink and yellow and magenta shapes in the air, Kevin holding and pushing that bass line, Clay calling the Caribbean and Brazil on his guitar like it’s a phone, Quentin getting the message on his soul’s pager and calling back on his percussion, and Quiana sanging her face off back across the ocean, and they was giving it every single thing down way to the bottom, all the way to the top, and across and back again. I realized later they was saving our lives, keeping the ancestors entertained enough so we would all, regardless of level of guilt, be spared. 

I can’t feel which direction the ocean is, but I know exactly where South Carolina is from where I’m standing. In my mind I take a boat there, down the Atlantic from the Statue of Liberty to the White House to Fort Sumter. Sometimes I imagine riding in a cart under the same heat down dirt roads made by somebody my grandmother knew on the other side, winding down the inner East Coast with the ocean smell too faint for me to jump on it and ride it, arriving finally at Chalmers Street. Or I get sold down the Mississippi and am shackled in a wagon; from Memphis, I can recall Jackson, Montgomery, Savannah, and then Charleston. Once, I ride there for a long time in the wake of a ship from Lagos that is only technically illegal, like later my grandchildren will only technically own land they put labor in. In the hold, I hold my breath when I can. I listen to those who still can, sing. I listen to them sing back home to the land to which they belong those who can no longer breathe or sing or move except for to swell. When I finally see the sun again after leaving that hold for a cage and being cleaned in ways rough and foreign, that star stings my eyes like I did not salute it every day of my life before the passage.

The city council of Charleston narrowly passed a resolution apologizing for slavery in 2018, but none of the profiteers, some there applauding the vote and saying aye, came and dropped so much as a shot-through copper coin. At the airport, people walk past a memorial to the nine murdered at Mother Emanuel when they fly in for plantation tours and carriage rides and resort life on lands where Africans once marooned. They building a museum on the site of the wharf where people were brought before sale, marking the city’s status as a port of entry for scores of Africans, at least one hundred thousand, and a few blocks away Mother Emanuel is her own museum and memorial with rotating art installations as memorial overlays—late July’s overlay is nine doves carved from metal, in perpetual flight to heaven. Some say it’s a first step; we got to start somewhere. I hear, “Go slow with your remembering, girl.” 

South Carolina is a beginning, a port, and also a future and an exit, into and out of modernity, back and forth across the U.S. South and the Atlantic, into and out of the past, into something more than reconciliation and healing if we are serious about something beyond trite equity and inclusion. Charleston in particular, how it sounds and how we remember and represent what happened there, offers up the gumption to end this here world and the lies through which we know it, a world that only sputters on because we plant trees and sing and dance and sometimes have good in our hearts, and to begin the work of building an altogether new one. 

From New York, in the Southerners’ corner on Astroturf on stolen Lenape land over a stolen and demolished Seneca Village in what we call Central Park, Ranky Tanky takes me down to the starting line. 

 

I don’t know whether the sound I’m hearing first is drums or horns. I don’t know whether it’s because the people came from the Angola region or if it is because they called themselves the Gola on that part of the coast. I don’t know if sound originates first on these shores in New Orleans or Charleston or stops in between or beyond. But I do know that there on the West African coast, from Senegambia, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, to Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, hundreds of groups thrived and built and warred and moved and survived, the way civilizations do, for millennia before European countries stole them and shipped them to the New World. There is an impetus to know precisely whence we came—whence exactly came the words Gullah or Geechee, or Calypso rhythms and their inversions, djembe, or Guinea—because the answer has been taken by people who like to pretend we had no distinct, diverse past before the passage. We do not want to gloss over distinctions where they can be known empirically and appreciated. But we must also assume that on the West African coast, as on the coasts of the U.S. South and the Caribbean, we conjured distinct sounds for our ethnic groups and regions just as we also shared sounds, traded them, recognized and mimicked each other’s melodies and rhythms and dances, and claimed some as ours and ours alone. We were indeed compelled to “exchange our country marks,” as the historian Michael Gomez termed it, our literal ethnic markings upon our bodies, our specific linguistic histories, as well as our distinctive physiognomy and cultures, for membership in a heterogeneous Blackness made possible and necessary by New World realities. But in so doing, Black people created the textbook and apex example of syncretism, first from experience, then from memory, then from passed-down memories, then when those were broken, from spirit memory. This is what we are recalling when we second line and ring shout and say, this Charleston jazz sure do sound like this New Orleans jazz. But this longing for specificity, and the knowledge of it, is what musicians mean when they say, they similar in origin, but they ain’t at all the same. Sonic historical precision is a struggle. I’m saying here on the record that it doesn’t matter to me which comes first, drums or horns, so long as I can dance.

People want one or the other, though; we got to choose. This is the tension in Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, in which the Peazant family is choosing between modernity on the mainland or a seemingly pre-modern (at best) or anti-modern (at worst) African past on Ibo Landing at the turn of the twentieth century. The matriarch, Nana Peazant, isn’t exactly holding the younger generations hostage there. She certainly could have. Rather, she sincerely questions the implications of their move to the mainland, their move across the water, and what will be lost in the process. Meanwhile, most of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, some quite eager to move to opportunity and away from indigo and agriculture, have made clear that they are going to the mainland. What plays out in the film is the young ones’ struggles to justify leaving their ancestral land and land of their rearing, which requires they project bondage and backwardness onto the matriarch.

On the island there are songs, hand games, play, language and moral lessons, stories, bottletrees, and graves of the passed on. There are memories of enslavement and the time when freedom came, of the indigenous people who belonged there, of collaborations and movement. The film’s score is scant, providing mostly the pulse of drums under synthesized pipes and strings; the soundscape of the film is these songs and games, the lilt of the characters’ voices when they say each other’s names, the Fajr that Bilal, the island’s last saltwater African, makes to the sun and across the water each morning, the birds and frogs and wind and crickets, and the waves of the Atlantic. The film’s visuals—intimate, ethnographic, intentional—are a soundscape of their own; watch it without sound and you will still hear the rhythms. It is no wonder that Beyoncé signified on it to capture the most interior, communal, and spiritual portion of her Lemonade film, the chapter titled “Reformation.” 

The Peazant family and community are not isolated and cut off from modernity as is often suggested about maroon communities, Gullah communities, pre-colonial West African groups, and indigenous groups across South America and Australia. After all, groups in the Amazon did use Al Gore’s internet and white supremacist–breeding ground YouTube to get their message out to the world about what was being done to their community and our earth for the sake of capitalism. Rather, these groups have endeavored to make strategic choices about when and where to enter these spaces, what to take from them, what to exchange, and what to leave there. In the case of the Peazants, this is made evident by the fact that one cousin, Viola, has gone up north and become educated and Christian, while another, Yellow Mary, has traveled as far as the Caribbean as the wet nurse for a difficult family. And then there is the other main source of tension and movement in the film—a woman, Eula, has been raped by a white man on the mainland and is pregnant, and her husband, Eli, is in agony over the violation and moreover the question of the child’s paternity. The film is narrated by the spirit of the unborn child as a little girl, who tells the story of the island during and after enslavement, of the Peazant family, and of the tensions between past and future that are entangled in her parentage, her impending birth, and the coming move to the mainland. 

Mediated by the Atlantic on either side, Daughters’ references to ancestral African spiritual traditions, including invocation of the Orisha, in concert with hoodoo and other African-rooted spiritual work, call upon viewers to sit in and with the middle of things. Some choices are certainly explicit—stay, go; island, mainland; African spirituality, Christianity; Africa, America; past, future—but these are not as binary as they seem. Nor are they joined in an easy syncretism. The thematic through line necessitates a stillness that is not just neither here nor there, but altogether beyond these queries. In the end, it is clear who physically leaves the island and who stays, but thirty years after the film’s release, there are still questions about the value of the old ways, if and how they persist, what our responsibility is for caretaking them, and what kind of people we become year after year if we decide not to preserve them.

Daughters might be the first in a series of films made in the 1990s and 2000s that took up questions of Black migration and reverse migration, city futures and rural pasts, modern Norths and provincial Souths. Whereas subsequent films examine rural North Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia as home sites lost and found, and do so in the contemporary moment, Daughters opens this cultural discussion with a unique scenario: What if we got as geographically and culturally close as we could to Africa without crossing the Atlantic, and as far back as we could go temporally post-slavery? What if we were as close to folks who remember Africa in the New World, as close as Zora was to Kossula, as possible? What decisions would we make then? Every film of the sort thereafter comes to the same conclusions: home is something to be returned to or taken with you; you already know the grass ain’t greener on the other side; and somewhere, somebody knows the old ways, and they are our only salve and bind regardless of whether we go through the port door or not.

 

Ranky Tanky is an ancestral funk band. Their members are variously jazz and gospel trained, but as a collective, ancestral funk is their genre. I know because they start Ranky Tanky, their first album, with horns on the three and four, but Good Time, their second one, released in July, with bass on the one. And if you for some strange reason get to thinking that the four-measure bass intro to Good Time is a temporary thing, that you can land safely on the two and four soon, the next measures come along and add echoing, percussive claps to keep you returning to the beginning. The song is called “Stand by Me,” and we praying and we need God to be right there standing with us on the first beat. No time to wait. This is a necessary doubling down on the spiritual funk Ranky Tanky’s Gullah name commands—enjoinment to move, to work, to get funky; to shake it; to turn up; to get crunk. Movement is worshipful gratitude. Listening to them I think maybe the answer to whatever questions are being asked at Daughters’ end involves the music of dance.

Funk is at once spiritual and pugilistic and reparative and confrontational. It does not demand you apologize for slavery but absconds over the Atlantic with its freedom and hovers over the water on the downbeat, wishing you would try to come steal it again. It buries itself deep in the dirt of a sea island and makes its rhythms shake the earth and then shoots out the ground on a spaceship. And when driven by ancestral reverence, funk gets and bares sharp teeth. Good thing Ranky Tanky don’t bite. In Central Park, they even encouraged the folks without rhythm to clap and dance.

Ancestral funk is a gift they’ve been given to give, and they take the responsibility seriously. Quentin Baxter, Kevin Hamilton, Clay Ross, and Charlton Singleton go back to music school days in Charleston and played together as a jazz collective before they went their separate ways, exploring and playing a range of musical genres across the globe. Some two decades later, Ross suggested the quartet reconvene, and Quiana Parler joined as lead vocalist and torchbearer. The goal was to pay homage to Gullah musical histories and traditions; the outcome was a port-opening sound to the other side of time and the other side of the ocean. Five is the perfect number for a funky balance.    

I talked to the group before their New York show—that is, in their air-conditioned trailer and before we all became twice-baked sweet potatoes. Clay didn’t mention this in the interview, but I feel strongly that the spirit of Mary Elizabeth Jones—the Gullah singer, writer, folklorist, and documentarian from the Georgia Sea Islands—compelled him to bring the band back together to hone and make their offering. Jones’s emphasis on rhymes and games for children reverberates throughout their work, and Clay does say that “at our very best, when we get into a synergistic state in the music, every one of us is in touch with the innocence of our childhood.” Drawing on Bessie Jones’s archive; the band members’ own remembrances of South Carolina music, rhymes, and games (the musicians grew up on the islands, and Charleston, and an hour inland up Interstate 26, and in North Carolina); and significant spiritual and gospel histories, Ranky Tanky’s self-titled debut album is a celebration of the middle, where you dance joy and wail sorrow and clap to it all. It is Gullah, Geechee, island, creole, honeysuckle bush, hand-games-of-dusty-skirt-girls, soul mathematics, afterlife music. Gullah is the root, “the purest African assessment of this whole get-down of colonial living,” as Quentin says. The band’s repertoire contains time-tested people’s songs, “songs that were raised up and filtered down throughout the Gullah community—from this village to this village to this community to this community [because] everybody could relate,” Charlton adds. The message from across the ocean’s past and from the Gullah ancestors who formed themselves into one from many African groups, is that, in Quiana’s words, “No matter what you’re going through, even death, there’s still joy and celebration.” “Maintain,” says Kevin.

Ranky Tanky sounds of mourning and celebration of life, death, and the in-between, where traditional spirituals are put into service of the funk archive with a reverence, march, verve, joy, and push that signal that the roots of things are speaking. I know all of these songs, all of these rhythms, all of these chants, all of these phrases, all of these melodies from somewhere in me that I can’t quite recall. Maybe it’s from the songs raised up in service and the way folks talked in the fellowship hall afterwards. And from how we played the clapping games “Slide” and “Down Down Baby” on the edge of the street so we’d be in it like we mattered, but so we also wouldn’t get hit by a car. And the jump rope songs and rhymes we sang along the side while we watched and waited to jump in. What I don’t recognize, what is new but familiar in another way, is these particular arrangements and these particular harmonies and these particular combinations of polyrhythmic percussion. This is what makes Ranky Tanky’s offering to American music history distinct—it encases the traditional in carefully built, geometric layers of funk that protect us from forgetting this music, no matter where or how we are moved from this land. 

Bessie Jones knew this ancestral funk was coming, saw it rolling in from the Georgia coast and spun right around and started gathering up the life she saw around her so it could go into the pot when the funk arrived. She also taught the young ones the games, dances, rhythms, and rhymes, the ones that were intended to keep children busy so the devil couldn’t catch them, but when tweaked in one direction or the other could conjure all manner of spirits. She taught them so that they could carry the muscle and sonic memory of their ancestors, a Nana Peazant of sorts. The recollections were important, as just as had been the case since emancipation, the children were bound to be called to the mainland. Jones packed their little spirits an everlasting lunch, so long as they kept sharing it with others.

When the band opens “Ranky Tanky” with “Who is the greatest? We are the greatest. Are you sure? Yeah. Positive? Yeah. Definitive? Yeah. All right, all right,” I remember opening dance practice routines at my granddaddy’s house: “Spirit all right? All right. Ready? Begin.” I remember that “Ranky Tanky” is a chant taken up by children, heard from adults or the children’s mimicry of adult logics, where funking is the answer to all ills. Pain in your feet? Ranky tanky. Pain in your leg? Ranky tanky. Pain in your heart? Ranky tanky. Pain in your head? Ranky tanky. Pain all over? Well, ranky tanky, then. This is how we are remembering and surviving these days. Take that, pharmaceutical industry. 

I wonder about all the childhoods Ranky Tanky conjures singing all of these games, songs, rhythms—childhoods raised up from dust but also raised up from this very moment, the ones that children are still living and being taught in some way, somewhere. The quintet is certainly calling up their own childhoods, the tremendous inheritance of sonic spiritual praise in the South, and the ones passed down to them by their elders, ones on the island, and in the city, and up the road. They converged on Charleston, the city where they put these memories, the memories they carried in them, together with what they learned and studied about sound, Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, the repertoire in Black churches across South Carolina on Sunday, or the order of games on sidewalks every school holiday. Their music is a crash course in Southern lessons and logic, wrapped well in sound. Ranky Tanky are collectors of and conduits for songs, sounds, and feelings that recall and endure.

Their second album, Good Time, turns intensely toward the spirit, moving from reverence to possession, especially on the album’s first half. Here the Diaspora comes freely to the Gullah shore. Ghana pulls up with its palm wine guitar, with Brazil and Charleston variously on the beat, and a Holiness church’s Usher Board #2 on the harmonies. But the syncretism here isn’t muddy water or even the synthesis of a plural African cultural dialectic. The sounds are varied, diverse, tight. Everyone and everything—the drummer, the vocals, the trumpet, the bass, the guitar—is in the pocket of the Atlantic. It is the children hearing the grown folks’ business, not because the grown folks have forgotten they are there, but because they must teach them some things only through grown talk. “Oh, say, can you see / We ain’t free?,” they sing on “Freedom,” which adds Gullah-inspired voices and sound signatures to the slate of Black Lives Matter–era anthems. It is a second-line-battle-march song pushed onward by West African guitar rhythms, insistent snare flanking watchful bass, and a trumpet solo bridge that heralds the breaking of walls and chains. There is talk of struggle, freedom, death, and love, and the absolute spirit possession of “Sometime.” Then the break comes, and we are back to an innocent Charleston “Good Time.” The album’s second half returns to some of the band’s brilliant arrangements of traditional songs, but the play turns serious. “Green Sally,” for instance, becomes all at once a vigorous second line, two step, buck jump, and shoulder shake, rocking a different way than the children’s song. “Old Bill” is a revival leader now, “Pay Me My Money Down” is so gleefully insistent and threatening that you might think you owe the band some money, and “Worried Now” takes on a more material, ominous meaning. Did I get raptured? The children have now been made horns and drums.

Maybe it is all child’s play, all children’s collaborative, improvised, imaginative play, and the sonic nostalgia it carries, that moves us when Ranky Tanky performs. There’s Green Sally, Old Bill, Knee Bone, Hambone, the turtle dove, the ranky tanky, and the shoo lie loo, all our friends, all our dances, all our rhythms. We need that innocence to get raptured, I think. It is as the Peazant girls on Ibo Landing’s beach, twirling, dancing, playing their games, caught up in the spirit. But it is also as the Peazant girls hearing Eula, the woman who was raped, admonishing the family about rejecting Yellow Mary, and by extension her, for being “ruint.” Eula reminds them that for all of the promises of the city, they won’t escape rape or the fear of rape, or “ruin” on the mainland. The girls know what is being said, their trumpet joy on the beach not separate from Eula’s improvised, trumpeted warning. Children, especially girl children, know the things we know in a different way.

107 feat Robinson rankytankyintCharlton Singleton, Clay Ross, Quiana Parler, Quentin Baxter, and Kevin Hamilton. Photo by Sully Sullivan

 

It’s waning crescent moon time, a time for some things to end, when I arrive on the Isle of Palms at the end of July. Central Park is a port far from here, but the Charleston port seems farther. I had crossed water and time from the Charleston airport to this current-resort-former-plantation-former-Seewee land. At the airport I see the words “North Charleston” on a sign, and my mind goes to the “North Charleston” file and pulls out Walter Scott’s green shirt, a darting flash of prosperity. And then it brings out the rest, the grotesque main course of Scott running from the murdering officer Michael Slager, Scott’s fellow Coast Guard veteran, who shot at him eight times, hit him five, sending three into Scott’s back. Then I travel to Cuba like I did when I first learned the number of times Scott had been shot. I go in the black house with the red door, through the beaded curtain, and plop down at Tupac Shakur’s sparse wooden square table with the rose vase on it. I tell him again, “Real niggaz do die, Tupac.” He knows; he only sighs. I get up from his table and go back to Charleston.

On the island, there is a seafood place and an Airbnb cottage named for the original indigenous residents. “Seewee” and versions of it are used to name all sorts of things—everything but restoration or reparations. “Brother, where we at?” I asked one of the few Black people I saw, running food at a restaurant. He replied with warning and humor and a rise in his voice, “We ain’t out here.” Noted. I had only come for the Atlantic anyway. 

I know precisely where it is because it calls me like my Mama calling my name from another room in the house. I might not know exactly where her voice is coming from because of the distance and other noise, but I’m gone figure it out mighty fast. In my sky-blue swimsuit and white flowy pants with splits up both sides, I walk up to the Atlantic waving like it’s gone wave back. This sea island might have been a place where kidnapped Africans from across the ocean, purchased and bound for bondage in the U.S., were concealed long after the official outlawing of the trade in the United States. Some maybe was brought down from Central Park. It actually doesn’t matter to me which of these sea islands they were concealed on, seeing as their fate was all the same. From a distance, snare and bass end up sounding like the same rhythm. My experience with the ocean is the same. 

I visit the Atlantic day and night for three days. On the last night, I go to it and it roars at me with the memory of the brother telling me, “We ain’t out here,” and I lose my balance. 

“I’m out here,” I say. “Mother! Yemonja! I’m out here!” 

She responds, “Yes. Now go.” 

I heed and leave in a quiet rush the next morning, earlier than I had intended. When I see my Lyft driver is a brother named Bryan, I know Jordan Peele himself must have written this escape scene. I thank the ancestors, throw my bag in Bryan’s trunk, jump in the back, and tell him, I’m so glad to see you now please hurrup and get me off this muthafucka

The destination I have put in the app is Mother Emanuel.

 

Crossing over the water to go back to Charleston, I feel the relief Viola Peazant must have felt when she left Ibo Landing and found Jesus on the mainland. Cities are my Jesus. They and their logics are familiar things. I go to Mother Emanuel on a Tuesday morning before the new moon to say their nine names and to remember the nine doves and to sit and listen to them and Denmark Vesey, the former slave who bought his freedom and took refuge in the church and was hanged for planning a rebellion, and the conspirators, and all of the songs nine hundred thousand Black folks have sung there before, in between, and after. I remember all of these songs. I remember that the artist Fahamu Pecou has come here and done an egun procession, a traditional ceremony for celebrating the ancestors in Yoruba tradition, in his “New World” Egungun masquerade. In black writing on white cloth, his Egungun costume says the names of so many of our new ancestors: Amadou & Oscar & Sean & Trayvon & Michael & Eric & John & Jordan & Tamir & Walter & Freddie. Oh, Lord, stand by me / be my redeemer, Lord / stand by me. I make my mouth into a bongo to say their names, and I turn it into a trumpet to blast them. Worried now / I won’t be worried long. I want to remain here until the last Sunday service, when this church turns into a spaceship and blasts away from earth and ocean. And Knee Bone, Green Sally, Hambone, and Old Bill gone be there with his tambourine and rolling pin. But the sun is turning up, and I know my bag will be heavy. Why I ain’t pack lighter. I pick it up and head for the former slave market.

On my way to the market, a Black man sees me from several yards away and yells hello. I think he must want to say something more to yell from so far away, but I have already yelled back, Hey there, how you doing today, sir? But he didn’t want nothing else. He just wanted me to know that he saw me and to greet me on a hot Tuesday. Closer, I see two Black boys on bikes with sweetgrass, standing and pedaling over the cobblestone, heading away from the horses and carriages and into the direction of the church, silent, pretty. I only greet them with a stare because I don’t know if I am seeing them really or if it is getting hotter by the corners where Africans were sold. The docent at the Old Slave Mart Museum tells me that the sale of people was moved off the streets and inside of buildings in part because of the declining decorum of selling people as the war approached but moreover because having four blocks of people screaming and shouting Buy and Sell like Wall Street before it went digital created an urban planning and traffic nightmare. I think how New Yorkers must have got all that honking honest. Get these sales done, you holding up traffic, you jerks.

 

The U.S. and so-called “global” Souths, and their coasts especially, their Atlantic Black Belts, are our ancestral homelands on this side. These Souths are where we remember the journey and what came before, and where we put our memories into food, language, hair, music, art, color, and the air. Across the Atlantic in Senegal, Sierra Leone, Côte D’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, The Gambia, Nigeria, Mali, or Burkina Faso, things are not as we remember nor as we have forgotten. But though this may be the case about our memories, there are ports here and there with their histories enabled entirely by the fact of our presence. There are still ships. Now there are museums. And we know exactly where all that money is, who has it, and how they came to have it. Guitar or drums. Doesn’t matter to me. It’s all blood beats.

Ranky Tanky’s ancestral funk is a twenty-first-century archive of the Gullah spirit in particular but the African-descended New World spirit more generally, built with intention and purpose and spirit into our memories in new, bulletproof cases. There are universal lessons in the music, about love and life and death and play. The most urgent is the call for repair of the great rupture of the last millennium. They make this call with every angle and inch of the African Diaspora, especially as it manifested on South Carolina and Georgia’s Sea Islands, from the Caribbean and South America, across the South, down to New Orleans and Mobile, up to Baltimore and New York, and back marooned in the swamps and jungles. They turn their instruments into dances, songs, calls, chants, rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and feelings. Even if we hear our particular origin place, or one of the many, just for a flash, even if it is just an improvised memory, we are grounded in what we have given and what has been taken and what we are owed. This funk calls for action and restoration with a wide, groovy smile. Apologies and reconciliation will not suffice, for the people or for the land or for the planet. We can hear now, even with the sound down, that they won’t be enough. On top of all of this sound, there is Quiana, her voice swimming, floating, walking on water across the ocean and listening for the response, the call to act. They’ll never know our power / We’ll keep up the fight.

There are times when the old ways are painfully tossed away as fraught, pitched back through the port and the door is shut, and we move North. Or West. Or across the northern border. Or across the southern border. In the impromptu wakes we knew were coming but did not call for in the bottom of the ships, we fought to remember. We do not talk about what we remember. We pass what we remember in songs, rhymes, games, braids, and anything else we can think of. I know all of these songs. We do not remember what we remember. When our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren are in the new times and they need to know the old ways, or to understand them, sometimes we reach back through and grab a memory or nine. But we are now too old and mortal to get too close or stay too long on the other side. My grandmother still talks about Mississippi, but no longer about her mother Suge. My mother-in-law’s special friend still has jokes about Mississippi, and then he has nothing but tears and he says, Stop. I wonder what instruments we are all made up of and then think it doesn’t matter because we are all a pretty good song. 


“Freedom” by Ranky Tanky is included on the South Carolina Music Issue Sampler.


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Zandria F. Robinson is author of This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South and Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life, written with long-time collaborator Marcus Anthony Hunter. Her writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Scalawag, the Believer, and the New York Times. In 2017, she was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for an essay she wrote for this magazine.

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