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Out with a Bang

[Country Roads]

Tank and the Bangas bring home-grown goodness from New Orleans to America’s ears

By Alex V. Cook

Perhaps you remember Pop Rocks. The crumbled, effervescent candies came in foil packets, and when you poured them on your tongue, the rocks started to pop and fizz, which would escalate until a moment of panic took over and you realized: that’s the point. That borderline off-putting, strangely delightful sensation is exactly what makes Pop Rocks a legendary treat. This is the best way to describe Tank & the Bangas.

The opening spiel to “Crazy” from their live album The Big Bang Theory goes like this:

Well, well, well

You’ve found yourself in the funhouse

Where there’s the Mad Hatter, Tank, and

The bodacious Bangas

We welcome you

(In a monstrous demon voice) for a good time

And the song is off, like a rollercoaster cobbled together out of slick beats, slam poetry, and high theatrics. They rap. They chirp. They bellow. Tank & the Bangas captures every mind perceiving them and makes a flower of bold emotion and musicality bloom inside.

Tarriona “Tank” Ball is at the center of that flower, an evocative alien ringmaster of a funk circus from Venus, yet, they keep it real. The song plays out a skit about stalking a reluctant boyfriend, lurching in every emotional direction from menacing to confused to amused, culminating in a momentary swoon of horns. But underneath all the humor and dazzle, Tank is looking to connect on a root level.

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“I like to write about stuff that everyone has experienced, no matter what. Wal-Mart and meats, beets, greens, and peas. Everybody’s been made a fool of. I like to tap into the human experience. That goes from being a child to growing up into something else.”

At their packed show at the Spanish Moon in April, it was difficult to find a spot where you could see the band themselves. Rather, they could be experienced in the joy radiated to everyone in that room, each person succumbing to Banga chaos. This is by design.

“It may look crazy and out of the loop, but all of it is planned. We know what we are gonna do. We like to surprise each other. But we plan out everything.”

Tank and the Bangas formed in 2011 in New Orleans, growing a cult following that went global in 2016, when the band won NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest and captured the imagination of millions. But what is this music? Music journalists offer a mélange of genre labels like soul, hip-hop, or R&B in vain attempts to capture it. It’s like trying to explain what a whole bag of jellybeans tastes like.

“All those genres that you mentioned, that’s definitely it. Plus, mix that with a little trap as well. Folk music as well, I love folk music too. Mix all that in and you have a winner.”

Tank has a look. She is a resplendent collision of style, amalgamating various pieces into a staggering whole: a Peanuts-themed sweater-dress, a flowing Middle Eastern cape, and a crown of braids and green strands shaped into gravity-defying geometry. Her sense of costume and stage presence come from her experience in the slam poetry scene. “In slam poetry, you read a poem, walk off stage, and someone holds up a sign from one to ten to judge you. That made me see that people judged me before I even spoke. I want to be something awesome to look at. I feel like a tree, and I want to adorn myself with as many lights as I feel like. I see clothes as expression.”

Tank bristles at any easy categorization of what they do. “It’s amazing/horrible when someone asks what kind of music it is. I myself made it and can’t tell you, but everyone asks it, though. It seems you eventually have to pick a category, and it hurts to do so. When people see me they say, ‘Oh you’re black, you do R&B’ or ‘You’re black, you do hip hop, or you do spoken word poetry.’ Me and my band grew up on so many different influences of music, and now that we’re grown, we get to go where we want and play what we want, too.”

One influence common to the group is church. “Everyone came out of the church, mostly,” Tank says. “My grandmother took me to where my grandfather preached. They had me speak before he spoke. I’d get up before everybody and do this poem, ‘A Great Somebody’ by Adrian Hardesty. The children would be laughing at me speaking like this (imitates a preacher’s cadence). I didn’t care that they were laughing. I knew my grandmother was proud of me. I knew I was doing it right.”

Tank and the Bangas’ otherworldliness brings up a quote from rap provocateur Tyler, The Creator. When asked of his background, he said “I was raised on the Internet.”

“I understand what Tyler was saying,” says Tank. “I don’t think I was raised by the Internet because it wasn’t really around, but the Disney Channel. My sisters, and the hand games I played with my friends were all big, but that Disney Channel did something to me. If they wanted to introduce me, they could say I’m Willy Wonka meets Missy Elliott meets Andre 3000 meets Kendrick Lamar at a coffee shop.”

Tank’s voice rides high over the sonic bang whirlwind, as she still views the words as the core of her creative self. “I always feel more comfortable referring to myself as a poet than a singer. I learned to write before I learned to sing. All my sisters sing, my dad sung.. I used to try to sing with my sisters, but I just didn’t have it. I just went from reading my older sister’s notebook to writing my own poems. But I wanted to do it! I worked at it a little each day.”

Tank and the Bangas enjoyed their third appearance at Jazz Fest this year, but the sudden fame that has come from their association with NPR brings a new intensity to their creative engine.

“I just want this year to be absolutely extraordinary. When I get to thinking [about a show], I don’t think, ‘What can I do to make people see me?’ I think, ‘What can I do to make people have an amazing experience?’ It’s all about the experience, because someone gave it to me, I’ve got to give it to somebody else so they can be moved to go into the direction that they are supposed to go in.with their gifts, no matter what it is. That’s the goal.”

This summer, Tank and the Bangas embark on an NPR-branded tour—sold out in advance—and then a tour of their own. There is also a new album in the works. “It’s starting a new book. People are expecting things from us and also demanding things, ‘You gotta do this, you gotta do that.’ A lot of things to keep up with, but ultimately, all I have to do is create. That’s my job: to create.”