Contemporary Gullah: A few words with Krannert Opening Night band Ranky Tanky

Contemporary Gullah: A few words with Krannert Opening Night band Ranky Tanky

Krannert Center celebrates half a century Friday with free performances from respected musicians as well as artists, dancing, foods and beverages, interactive outdoor chalk art on the Goodwin Avenue stairs led by Scott Barber, and a by-the-decades car display surrounding it. Come dressed from a decade of your choice, 1960s to the future.

The party starts about 6 p.m., and within a few minutes, you'll hear from New Orleans Jazz Machine. Rising artists Ranky Tanky start at 6:30 p.m.

There's also a free 50th-anniversary Celebration Family Day starting at 10 a.m. Saturday.

Staff writer Paul Wood talked with the members of Ranky Tanky about their rapid climb to the top:

You've only been around a year, but you've made quite a stir, with top positions on the Billboard, iTunes and Amazon jazz charts. Do you think America is looking for something really different with long roots in the community?

Clay Ross: I'm not sure what America is looking for exactly, but I'm thrilled that our music has been so well-received. I can say that this project was built on the strength of very special relationships, and the powerful history of the region where we're from. This music is very deep, and I saw that there wasn't a contemporary group representing this musical culture. It was a really simple idea, but it's made an impact through the investment that each member has made to give it priority. We've all had to shuffle our lives quite a bit to focus on Ranky Tanky, and it's incredibly important to us.

Many people don't know much about Gullah culture, myself included. I saw 'Daughters of the Dust,' and the director was just here in town for the Roger Ebert Film Festival. It can be pretty ecstatic music. I know it's from the U.S., but what part? Does Gullah come from former slaves on those islands? I love the spirituals.

Charlton Singleton: This culture was born on small islands along the Southeastern coast. A preservation society was recently founded called the "Gullah Geechee Corridor," with historical sites that stretch from the southern coast of North Carolina down to the northern coast of Florida. Gullah is a number of things. First and foremost, it is a loving community. Within that community today, you have descendants of formerly enslaved African-Americans that have maintained a number of things from their ancestors, including the way that they do certain things like speak, cook, worship and sing.

What kind of music did you do before this, and how did you decide to work with this influence?

Ross: We have all been full time professional musicians for over 20 years and have performed in all types of groups playing styles from jazz to bluegrass, classical to pop. Between us, there isn't much in music that we haven't done. We saw that there wasn't a contemporary expression of Gullah music and felt that this would be something special for us to share with the world. At its core, this music is made of wonderful messages, powerful melodies and syncopated rhythms, so there is a lot to work with musically. We give ourselves permission to interpret these songs and filter them through our own experiences, so what we come out with is something unique and true to us as a group.

Opening Night Party

When: Doors open at 6 p.m. Friday.

Bands: New Orleans Jazz Machine, 6:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.; Ranky Tanky, 6:30 p.m.; Baracutanga, 7:45 p.m.; A.J. Ghent, 9 p.m.; Mucca Pazza, pop-up.

Food: Siam Terrace, Caribbean Grill, Piato, Rosati's Pizza, Rick's Bakery, Betsy's Bistro, Oh Honey Pie and Chester's BBQ offering selections for sale.

Admission: Free; donations are encouraged.

More information: krannertcenter.com/events/opening-night-party-50th-anniversary-celebration-kickoff or call 217-333-6280.

50th-Anniversary Celebration Family Day

What: Crafting activities; a didgeridoo demonstration by Sam Gingher and a tap-dancing lesson by Charlie Maybee; and performances by BowDacious String Band, Chinese Heritage Association Dancers, Urbana High School Vocal Chords Required and Banks Bridgewater Lewis Fine Arts Academy Drumline.

When: 9 a.m. Saturday.

Admission: Free; donations are encouraged.

More information: krannertcenter.com/events/50th-anniversary-celebration-family-day or 217-333-6280.