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Tank and the Bangas’ Wild Ride

[OffBeat Magazine]

By Frank Etheridge

Tank and the Bangas call their rehearsal space and its cozy lower Ninth Ward confines “Bangaville.”

The band meets twice a week, from 10 p.m. to midnight on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, to rehearse in their low-ceilinged space—which members also jokingly refer to as the Bangas’ “museum.” Its compact walls are adorned with various magazine clippings and awards they have garnered during a meteoric rise over the last few years from the local slam-poetry scene to the city’s brightest stages. The rehearsal space sits as a stand-alone structure behind the Craftsman-style house owned by lead vocalist/poet Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s aunt, “Tee” Tina Ball.

Expertly ensconced in well-manicured landscaping, the home was deeded by her late parents to “Tee” Tina, who a generation ago would write songs for talent show competitions to suit the big, beautiful voice of her brother (and Tank’s father), the late Terry Ball, known to many as “Cannonball” from his days as a one-man wrecking crew on the football field during high school.

On a Saturday night in late May on her St. Maurice Avenue property, “Tee” Tina hosted Tank and the Bangas’ Backyard Hangout, a semi-regular gathering of like-minded artists, friends and family at Bangaville. On this occasion, the event also served as a festival fundraiser for the band’s first overseas trip in June to gigs in London and Paris. Tickets to the Backyard Hangout were $10 (with VIP four-person tables available for $100) and the near sell-out event’s menu featured a “Banga Special” cocktail of mango Italian ice and vodka for $7, buttermilk drops for $1, and a plate of jerk chicken (a specialty of “Tee” Tina’s) for $8. Cast aglow with strands of white Christmas lights, the backyard featured a bustling bar on one end, a row of artists’ tables at the other (with one at work on a live painting) and a stage in the middle.

Hosts Tony Wilson and Mwende Katwiwa served as the night’s emcees, repeatedly tossing out to the audience the hashtags #webang and #tatb in a gesture that fosters not only a social-media marketing brand but also a spirited sense of connectivity that lies at the heart of the band’s essence.

After a few slam poets complete the night’s open mic portion, T-Ray the Violinist showcases his avant-garde style of skillful electric violin over looped samples and beats. Next, neo-soul singer Caren Green weaves Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and a “love, love, love” scat around Sevyn Streeter’s “How Bad Do You Want It? (Oh Yeah)” to wild applause.

There’s a positive, friendly vibe in the crowd, which numbers about 200 and is diverse, though largely young, hip and African-American. Standing in the back, Joshua Johnson, the Bangas’ drummer and musical director, explains that he began playing drums at the age of three but “learned about music mostly by listening to it every day of my life since I was three.” Devoted to their son’s education, Johnson’s parents drove him to and from Tangipahoa Parish daily so he could attend Independence High School, where he was drum captain. Like his Bangas bandmates, Johnson’s musical career began in church (his at Household of Faith) and his musical connection to “Tank” Ball grew from impromptu collaborations at Liberation Lounge, a weekly jam session (no longer running) hosted at BlackStar Books and Caffe in Algiers.

“You’ve got to keep time with the poet and realize that there’s a story—a conversation—taking place and you have to make sure it flows seamlessly,” Johnson, 27, says of drumming in a band driven by the spoken-word style. He developed the style with Ball in 2011, when they formed Liberated Soul Collective that morphed into BlackStar Bangas and, ultimately, Tank and the Bangas.

“Tank’s got a crazy, awesome energy, and it can go anywhere,” he adds.

The newest addition to the group, saxophonist/flutist Albert Allenback, entered the circle after responding to a flyer he saw on campus at the University of New Orleans, where the Montgomery, Alabama, native studies jazz. The flyer sought musicians for what turned out to be a gig with bassist Norman Spence at his church, Anchored in Christ in New Orleans East. Recognizing an opportunity, Allenback was so inspired by the band’s performance that he approached them after a Bangas show at Tipitina’s last year, and pleaded, “Take me with you!”

Keyboardist Merell Burkett first seemed destined for the trumpet, as the McDonogh 35 alumni was admitted into the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts based on his horn play. But feeling called to the keys, Burkett would intentionally leave his trumpet at home when he headed to NOCCA, a memory he now chuckles about while comfortably seated on Bangaville’s lone couch. “Forgetting” his horn landed him at the piano at NOCCA, thus sealing a fate that has since led to studies on his chosen instrument at McNeese State, in Tulane’s jazz program, and working with noted local piano player and teacher Jesse McBride. Burkett remembers first meeting Ball at a Nina Simone tribute show on the West Bank following the blues/jazz/Civil Rights icon’s passing in 2013.

Venturing out across America as a young New Orleans band behind Ball had built-in advantages, Burkett admits. As his bandmates echo agreement, he says that Ball’s national—even global—following was already in place from her smash success as a slam poet. “No matter if we went for our first time to North Carolina, South Carolina, Memphis, Harlem, Philly,” Burkett says, “we attracted a large audience. People all over already knew about Tank. And they came to see us.”

At noon on the Monday prior to Saturday night’s Backyard Hangout, Tarriona Ball sits inside a coffee shop on Esplanade Avenue eating a bagel spread with a vegetable-style cream cheese.

The Saturday night prior, Ball had appeared in the Music Box Roving Village’s curtain-call show in City Park. This was her second stint as part of the lauded musical abstraction, this time in lieu of Solange Knowles, who missed her scheduled appearance due to a trip to New York City. She strolled through the surreal scene of revved-up motorcycles, men standing on horseback and parading brass bands as she applied the perfect angelic tone in singing the refrain from the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” The prior Thursday, Tank and the Bangas played in Armstrong Park as part of the weekly Jazz in the Park concert series. There, a long line of enthusiastic fans waited to hug and greet the band after their stirring set that was marked by deft moves between jazz, R&B and full-on rock. Before expertly segueing into their most popular tune to date, “Rhythm of Life,” the Bangas stayed in time atop soaring melodies as Ball showcased superb vocal-skat skills and a stream-of-conscious delivery of lyrical imagery: “I’ll take you on the roller-coaster ride of your life,” Ball sang with spoken-word style, “Roller coasters are built for people who never been in love.”

After finishing her bagel, Ball discussed her life, inspirations and artistic accomplishments to date. Born while her family lived on Music Street in the Eighth Ward, Ball spent her formative years living in what she calls “deep Michoud” in New Orleans East. “It was right around the corner from Jazzland,” Ball says of their home and the amusement park shuttered since Hurricane Katrina. “I would sell candy throughout the school year to save up to buy season passes. We were there every day. I was scared of the roller coaster, the Mega Zeph, with all the noise it made, until the last day one summer when I finally got up the courage to ride it. I never stopped riding it after that. It was the meaning of exhilarating.”

Hailing from a family filled with ministers, Ball first sang in front of the small congregation of Christian Union Baptist Church on Clouet Street in the upper Ninth Ward near the Industrial Canal. The nickname “Tank” came when she was a baby from her father, Terry “Cannonball” Ball, who passed away when she was four years old just a few days after his only son’s first birthday. “When he sang, he sounded just like Stevie Wonder,” Ball says. “Every time I hear Stevie, I think of it as my dad talking to me.”

Describing herself as “still very shy,” Ball discovered her love of poetry around the age of 12, when she began reading poems composed by an older sister. “I memorized all of them in her notebook because they were so dope to me,” says Ball. “After that, my cousin gave me some poetry to read, and later I wrote a poem for my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was around then I realized the page couldn’t judge me like everybody else could. I could tell my secrets to the page and know it’s going to keep them.”

Ball began participating in competitive slam poetry as a student at Sarah T. Reed High School and made her first national splash appearing on HBO’s “Brand New Voices” series hosted by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. After turning 18, she joined Team SNO (Slam New Orleans) and was part of the team that won two National Poetry Slam Championships in 2012 and 2013. Saying she “wanted to bow out a champion with nothing to prove anymore,” Ball then left the world of competitive slam poetry, a departure, she adds, which was due in part “because that world got ugly. They were mad at us Southern poets. They said, ‘All they do is sing. They’re too theatrical.’”

Still, lessons learned from slam poetry remain. A former Southern University-New Orleans student one semester shy of a degree in psychology (“I will finish, and will do so when I feel like it”), Ball teaches slam poetry to students across Orleans Parish as part of the Enriched Program and will conduct workshops in London when the Bangas leave this month for gigs there and in Paris. “I did slam all over the world,” Ball says. “Slam taught me that if you work hard, you can get it. And slamming gave me confidence, because in slam they judge you as soon as you get off the stage on a scale of one to 10. They either like you or they don’t, and you know right away. It’s been a journey to get to where I can look people in the eye when I perform.”

Akeem Martin, SNO’s slam-master since 2010, first met Ball when he was a student at Edna Karr High School and they faced one another in slam-poetry competitions. Describing his first impression as “that she was very talented,” Martin began to know Ball well after he returned to New Orleans after college in 2008 and sought to form the first adult slam-poetry team since Katrina. “Tank wanted to be involved,” Martin says, “but she wasn’t performing at the time. I used to drive from the West Bank to the East to pick her up and go all the way to the Seventh Ward for the Pass It On slam every Saturday night at Red Star Gallery on Bayou Road.

“We’d been friends for years,” Martin adds of that point in time. “And I told her, ‘This is what you need to be doing. As your friend that’s also a performing artist, I’m going to get you performing as much as you can.”

Ball’s combination of imagination and style as a slam poet “is like nothing I’ve ever seen,” Martin says. And the Bangas? “They’re amazing,” he answers. “They’re my favorite musicians—not just in the New Orleans area, but period.”

Labeling her band’s sound as “organized chaos,” Ball lists inspirations from Nina Simone to Jill Scott to Disney movie soundtracks that complement the band members’ tastes, including a special love for the Japanese art form of anime. “When we first started out, we had one foot in the box and one out,” recalls Ball. “We played the songs people expected from us, like, ‘Oh, you’re black—give us some soul.’ But then we discovered that that wasn’t the only thing that felt good, and that’s when the glasses came off.”

While playing sets that rely heavily on Ball’s improvised spoken word, in-sync communication between band members is crucial. It works “because they’re church boys and I’m a church girl,” Ball explains. “So if I have a pastor moment and go off on a tangent, they know how to go there with me.

“I’m always where I’m supposed to be—and that’s ministering to the people,” she continues. “I grew up in a family of ministers and do this because somebody did this for me. I encourage people to chase after something. With the tools inside you, you can build exactly what you want.”

What Tanks and the Bangas have built to this point in their young careers is a growing loyal fan base enthusiastic to soak up, and groove to, their unique, intrepid voice and music, which has led in turn to increasingly higher-profile gigs. They appeared on the Gentilly Stage at Jazz Fest this year, and their July 4 Essence Fest debut will be “huge…HUGE!” Ball exclaims.

“It feels awesome and it feels normal all the same time,” Ball says of their sudden success. “This is the most exciting, scary, roller-coaster ride of my life, because I don’t know where I’m going to fall.”

Back at Bangaville and the Backyard Hangout, bassist Norman Spence says he feels “super blessed” in regard to the band’s recent rise on the road to artistic acclaim and musical stardom.

A native of Baltimore, Spence, 31, originally thought his career as a working musician would lead him to Atlanta. But like so many young grooms before him, Spence settled in Louisiana after marrying his wife, a Slidell native. Citing inspirations such as mega-star Erykah Badu and local R&B singer-songwriter, keyboardist and producer PJ Morton, Spence originally played the keys in the Bangas before moving to the bass. Describing the band’s rhythm as “a folkish beat,” Spence says his role in the band’s low end is “to stay out of the way of the vocalist, to keep the melody moving along and built on top of what Tank is doing with her voice.”

Humble and gracious in the manner of all his bandmates, Spence is unassuming, almost to the point of striking a pose of innocent surprise, when asked about the Bangas’ newfound, in-demand popularity. “The ball is rolling so fast,” he says, “and it’s like we’re not even pushing it.”

As the evening’s featured act, Tank and the Bangas are last to take the stage at the Backyard Hangout. As applause grows wilder in its raucous delight, host Tony Wilson introduces the band by saying, “They closed down Jazz Fest and they’re going to close down Essence Fest … Here they are, the moment we’ve all been waiting for … Tank and the Bangas!”

In light of this greeting and the reaction it receives, one gains a clear glimpse into exactly where this wild roller-coaster ride Tank and the Bangas are on is headed. Pay attention—it’s time to buckle up.