By Sasha Salk
Tarriona “Tank” Ball described her life right now as “definitely changing.” Yours might too, if you listen to her band Tank and the Bangas. This New Orleans-based group creates a sound that breaks musical barriers. Soulful, yes. Funky, yes. Rocking, yes. But they are also animated, energetic, hip-hoppy, lyrically playful, rhythmic, and almost jazzy at times. Tank and the Bangas change genres from song to song, and often within the same song. This musical flexibility makes their genre hard to pinpoint, although, in an interview with The Times-Picayune, background vocalist Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph described their music as “soulful Disney.”
Tank herself is a tiny dynamo at the front and center of the band. She is kind and relatively laid back during interviews, but onstage Tank is energetic, engaging, and always eager to showcase her band’s unique sound. Tank’s bold and colored hairstyles are as big as her stage presence, while her facial expressions match the mood of the song. She can rap like Nicki Minaj, write lyrics like a poet, and is at the front of a band that can sound like anything from Funkadelic to your quintessential jazz quartet to some old-school blues.
Tank attributes her comfort on stage mainly to her history of performing spoken word poems, saying that poetry “loved [her] first,” whereas “it took awhile for music to love [her] back.” Before dedicating her life to music, Tank competed in slam poetry competitions in which judges would hold up a scoreboard grading her from 1-10. She says that the pressure of performing onstage and receiving instant feedback “lights a fire beneath you and makes you more comfortable.” It also helps that Tank has several pastors in her family that “preach and encourage people all the time.”
Although Tank is just now learning her first instrument (the ukulele), she came from a very musical family. Her father was a disk jockey and French Quarter carriage driver who passed away fairly early in Tank’s life. Tank’s recent success makes her feel like she is “living out the rest of his dreams,” especially since he was the one that gave her the (increasingly appropriate) nickname Tank. Growing up in New Orleans, Tank recalls hearing Stevie Wonder songs playing in her house. Tank said that “the Stevie Wonder song called ‘Keep Our Love Alive’ was the only video [she] ever had of [her] dad singing and [she] loved it.”
Despite being from such a music-rich city like New Orleans, Tank does not feel intimidated showcasing her own sound in the Crescent City. Their particular sound “has nothing to do with traditional Jazz, brass music, or even Louisiana Zydeco,” and yet they innovate and combine genres in a way that would make any New Orleans music-lover proud. Tank says, “I came from a background that was so accepting so I was free to write whatever I wanted.”
The band was formed in 2011 at an open mic in New Orleans that Tank says “gave [them] the platform to believe that [they] could be worldwide.” They were inspired by music they heard in church, in Disney movies (hence the “soulful Disney” genre), and in soundtracks from Japanese cartoons and video games. Tank previously told the Times-Picayune that their “childlike interpretations of what life and music is” really characterize their music and performances. When creating new music, they typically start with Tank’s lyrics. Her rhythmic and poetic lyrics are clearly from the heart, likely because “about 75%” of the words are about her and her life. Tank’s lyrics often have to do with love or other emotional experiences, but are tastefully delivered in lighthearted and sometimes comedic ways.
Saxophonist and flutist Albert Allenback said in an interview with the Times-Picayune that it “is crazy” to try to conduct a normal life while pursuing a musical career. It’s likely to be getting crazier. This year, Tank and the Bangas broke out of the New Orleans music venue and festival circuit when they won a 6,000-contestant NPR Competition called the “Tiny Desk Competition.”
Tiny Desk is an NPR-sponsored video series that started in 2008 in which both widely known and less widely known bands come and play live concerts at the desk of Bob Boilen, the host of NPR’s “All Songs Considered.” The 3-year-old Tiny Desk Competition, on the other hand, is especially designed to give undiscovered bands around the nation the opportunity to travel to NPR’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. and record a Tiny Desk Concert behind Boilen’s desk where artists such as Adele, T-Pain, Wilco, and countless others have performed in the past.
With their victory, Tank and the Bangas will also be on an NPR-sponsored tour around the country along with some of the other runners-up from this year’s competition. One of the 10 judges of the competition was Trey Anastasio, guitarist and singer for the band Phish, who described Tank as “a force of nature, just full of joy” in an interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
If you watch either their Tiny Desk competition submission or their actual Tiny Desk Concert, one thing is clear: Tank and the Bangas are having a lot of fun. In an article posted on NPR’s website, Boilen himself said that he “fell in love” with Tank and the Bangas’ video submission of their song “Quick.” In an interview with Surge TV, Tank said that the moment NPR called, “the news hit us like a ton of bricks and ever since that day we have been on a roll.” Performing on bigger and bigger stages, the pressure continues to mount for Tank and the Bangas but their dynamic energy onstage hasn’t changed a bit. If they make mistakes onstage they just try to laugh it off and keep playing, because “there’s nothing you can do about a mistake once it’s made.” Allenback admitted he feels added pressure when performing. In an interview with the Times-Picayune, he said that he feels every single show “has to be very good because of everything we had to do to be here right now.”
In addition to their 2013 album “Think Tank,” the band is currently in the studio working on a new project. They also look forward to opening up for the well-known group Alabama Shakes in addition to headlining their own NPR-sponsored tour. As for their hometown, Tank doesn’t feel the need to leave New Orleans in order to “make it” in the music world. “I already feel like we have almost made it. We’re here right now,” Tank says. “New Orleans will always be our roots but anything can be our branches. We’ve been in London for three months and in California for two. We will go where our music takes us one thousand percent.”