By Shelley Hill Young
Quiana Parler’s cell phone is blowing up. She’s juggling interviews and photo shoots with multiple media outlets, scheduling tour dates and maintaining her wedding band bookings. Her life hasn’t been this busy since about 10 years ago after she just missed being on the second season of “American Idol.” She befriended Clay Aiken at auditions in Atlanta and went on the road as one of his backup singers shortly after he came in second place in the competition.
Quiana has moved to the front of the stage and is the lead vocalist for Ranky Tanky, a band made up of longtime South Carolina musicians that celebrates Gullah musical traditions and reinterprets them in a modern, sometimes funky way. (Ranky Tanky is loosely translated to “get funky” in the Gullah language.)
And Ranky Tanky is getting big. The band released its self-titled debut in September, was featured by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in December and performed at globalFEST in New York in January. By February, Ranky Tanky’s debut album was at the top of the Billboard jazz chart.
“We had no idea it would take off this fast,” Quiana says.
The band is playing a homecoming performance at Spoleto USA Festival on June 2.
“I’ve done Piccolo (Spoleto Arts Festival), all my life,” Quiana says, referring to the city-sponsored art festival that features mostly local performers. “To do Spoleto with Ranky Tanky this year, that’s amazing.”
Quiana grew up in Harleyville and went to College of Charleston. The daughter of two wedding singers, she started taking lessons with opera singer June Bonner at the Dock Street Theatre when she was 8.
At 16, Quiana began singing in Serenade, a musical revue directed by Brad and Jennifer Moranz at the Charleston Music Hall, and later in the Latin jazz band Brazil, which performed at Mitchell’s on the Market. She’s been singing with Ranky Tanky bassist Kevin Hamilton, drummer Quentin Baxter, guitarist Clay Ross and trumpeter Charlton Singleton in different capacities for years. So when the four were looking for a female vocalist for a new project, they called Quiana.
The call couldn’t have come at a better time for Quiana, who says she had been on a spiritual journey to find deeper meaning in her life. She tried to take her then-3-month-old son with her as she toured as a backup singer, but learned that situation didn’t work well for them. She had returned to Charleston to focus on her wedding band Quiana Parler and Friends, which she calls her first love. Still, she says, “I just felt like there was something more I should be doing.”
Quiana says the rhythm of the traditional Gullah music – which originates from West African slaves who developed their own spoken language on the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia – is one she’s familiar with. It’s the rhythm she grew up hearing. Indeed, it’s a rhythm familiar to anyone who grew up listening to music in South Carolina. “Everybody knows that rhythm. It’s a happy beat.”
And the music is spiritual. She sings a beautiful cover of Ralph Stanley’s “O Death” and the spiritual “Been in the Storm.” There are also more fast-paced songs, such as “Ranky Tanky” based on children’s rhymes and games.
Quiana says she’s able to incorporate her background in gospel, pop and R&B into her performances for Ranky Tanky. “This is the foundation where it all started,” she says. “I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Part of Ranky Tanky’s mission is to preserve and spread the Gullah culture and to educate people about it as they perform around the world.
Quiana says that when she’s performing this music, she senses “a different respect from the audience.” She likes to call it “music with a purpose.”
“It takes me to a space spiritually,” she says.
Quiana seems to have found the strength and purpose she was looking for. And it has very little to do with fame, though that just might come.
“I never sought out fame,” Quiana says. “I sought out success. Success is being able to take care of my family.”