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May 11 2018

The Woman Behind The Songs

By Carol Antman  for The Island Connection

The Charleston-based band Ranky Tanky, with lead vocalist Quiana Parler, gives a concert at College of Charleston Cistern Yard as part of the new First Citizens Bank Front Row series.
(Photo by Reese Moore).

Quiana Parler was 7 years old when she started voice lessons with the renowned June Bonner. “Sing your ass off no matter the audience.” June told her.

“I wish I could say ‘thank-you’ now,” Quiana says. So would local and international audiences.

 “I’ve always been a singer; I’ve never had a 9-to-5. I didn’t go to my prom; I was doing the show.” Quiana sang in church growing up in Harleyville and at the College of Charleston where she caught the attention of Quentin Baxter and Tommy Gill. They recruited her to sing at the Charleston Music Hall when she was only 15 years old. She met Carlton Singleton there when she performed in “Serenade”.

“Quiana was polished,” Singleton says. “She’s the perfect blend of raw talent, polished talent and professional coaching. She knows how to breathe. She knows how to go operatic, she knows when to go church; she knows when to go pop. She can switch on and off and make it sound effortless.” Since then, she’s performed at the Music Hall over 30 times. “Her energy is amazing. Her voice and talent are amazing,” said Charles Carmody who manages the venue.

A measure of fame followed when Quiana finished near the top in the 2003 season of American Idol. For the next ten years she toured with contest winners Clay Aiken and Ruben Stoddard. It’s a hard life. “I’m a full time mom when I’m home,” Quiana says while describing the patchwork of care she arranged for her son. Her popular wedding band kept her in town sometimes but she describes becoming aware of a “hard-to-reach itch”. “I felt I was supposed to be doing something more.” So she decided to be still and wait for it to come to her. About a week later, Clay Ross called with an idea for Ranky Tanky.

It’s a little surprising that Clay, the only white member of the quintet, had the vision to take Gullah church music, play songs, chants and spirituals and juice them up with global rhythms and jazz. Quiana wasn’t familiar with the repertoire since she’d grown up inland. Carlton Singleton, Quentin Baxter and Kevin Hamilton “thought the idea was lame because the music was so familiar. They’d been doing it all their lives,” Quiana remembers. But now she says, “We just want to spread the culture. It’s a beautiful culture. We had no idea that this style of music and Gullah culture would put us on NPR!” During that interview with Terry Gross, Clay described the music’s appeal: “I think… these songs bring people in touch with their suffering that is just the common thread of all humanity. And everybody deals with that… 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.”

They’ve struck a chord with audiences even if, as Quiana laughs, most people have never heard of Gullah.

“They call it goulash or something.”

 It was her first trip abroad when they began their European tour with an 18 hour flight from California. As the audience in the Czech Republic chanted their name and hollered for an encore, “It hit me that we were onto something here,” she remembers. “It’s because of the rhythm. People can feel that we’re coming from a good place. You give off good energy, you get good energy back,” she said.

Rave reviews followed the band’s performance at the 2016 globalFEST in New York: “The biggest surprise of globalFEST, Ranky Tanky proved that exotic music can be both unfamiliar enough to be surprising, and yet familiar enough to provoke swinging hips and nodding heads.” (Paste Magazine). “Combining revered Gullah kinship with a jazz sensibility, Ranky Tanky accentuates the spirituality connected to the ring shouts and praise houses, proposing a modern rendition of their ancestral music.” (All About Jazz).

Their debut album, released on the Music Alliance label in October 2017, has risen to the top of the Billboard and iTunes charts and was one of the bestreviewed albums of the year.

 So does Quiana feel successful? “It’s a blessing to do what I love my entire life. Music chose me. Success has always been a goal but fame is not success. Longevity is success. I define my success as being able to pay the bills.” She’s especially grateful to the community that has helped nurture her talent. “Now I understand that this is what I’ve been meant to be: music with a purpose. We want to thank Charleston for their support. To be part of Spoleto and to sell out is amazing. I’m so excited for what’s ahead for Ranky Tanky.”

Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see

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